Patriots still class of division as ‘Fins work out the kinks

OK, I’m not gonna lie, it’s impossible to analyze this division, top to bottom, with any confidence. You’ve got two teams who should probably be good, and two other teams who can only be considered dark horses because no one could possibly know what to expect from either one at this point. So here goes the exact same divisional preview you’ve probably already read a half-dozen other places:

1. New England Patriots (11-5)

Turns out that “we don’t really need Ty Law” thing didn’t pan so well, especially when Rodney Harrison went down in week three last season. The Pats’ secondary got ripped to shreds last year, as it turned out Bill Belichick can’t just take anybody and plug him (or her) into the system. New England’s playoff magic ran out as well, as Tom Brady and his playoff-hardened friends got soundly beaten in a poor second-round performance against Denver.

And then in the offseason, the Patriots saw their roster get further depleted by the losses of David Givens, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch and the incomparable Tim Dwight. Looks like a clandestine two- or three-year rebuilding plan to me, with Belichick, Bob Kraft and Co. hoping to float by with contender status-on the backs of Brady, Dillon and a solid front seven-while they infuse the roster with the youth it is sorely lacking. Sounds like a good plan to me. Especially since, even in the midst of all this, the Pats still look like a pretty damn good team.

Of course, the Pats are still contenders because they have the best quarterback in the league in Tom Brady. Some may disagree with that statement-in particular Chronicle Opinion Editor Matthew Piper. And you can’t blame Piper-he has a bulletproof mathematical formula to back up his claims that Peyton Manning is better. It’s simple arithmetic, really: With his record-setting 2004 season, Manning did 49 things (touchdown passes) in one season. Brady has only done three things (Super Bowl championships). So it’s very simple: 49 is a bigger number than three. To be specific, he’s 16.3 times better. It doesn’t end there, however: Multiply that by 11 years of “bad luck,” and you get 179.7. Therefore, Manning is 179.7 times better than his New England counterpart. Brady may have heard these arguments, but to paraphrase Patrick Roy, he’s got his three Super Bowl rings clogging his ears.

2. Miami Dolphins (10-6)

Miami’s loss to Charlie Batch and the Steelers shouldn’t really have surprised anyone. It’s not because the Dolphins aren’t a playoff team-I’m pretty sure they are. They should be a hell of a club by year’s end. But while breaking in a new quarterback, several new faces and redefined roles as well as a revamped system, it will take time. They’ll struggle for a while but eventually catch fire provided Daunte Culpepper stays healthy.

I’ve never been a huge Culpepper fan-he’s a good quarterback, but not necessarily reliable down the stretch. But he’s still a massive upgrade, and things are finally looking up for Miami. To put the team’s current situation into context, let me just remind you that before last year, the front office signed A.J. Feeley to a five-year, $14.6-million contract.

And now the Dolphins have probably one of the best head coaches in the NFL and are coming off a season in which they completely overachieved.

3. New York Jets (8-8)

If Chad Pennington’s performance is to be trusted at face value (which it isn’t), then maybe the Jets will surprise people. Their soft schedule certainly makes it possible if enough things go right-they have non-division games against Oakland, Houston, Green Bay, Cleveland and Detroit. But with no semblance of a running game-nice job letting Lamont Jordan go, fellas-it’s going to be hard to beat New England and Miami. New starter Derrick Blaylock averaged 1.9 yards per carry on 19 rushes in the Jets’ season opener.

And the fact is, the Jets, for all their sleeper potential because of the uncertainty regarding Pennington’s health, still aren’t as talented as the Pats or Dolphins. I like Ellis, Robertson and Vilma on the defensive side, but the defense will have to find a pass-rushing replacement for departed linebacker John Abraham.

4. Buffalo Bills (6-10)

Yeah yeah yeah, I don’t care that they almost beat the Patriots on Sunday. Big deal. So what if J.P. Losman had the second or third semi-respectable (emphasis on semi) performance of his career. I could look good against that defensive backfield.

But let’s be honest: Losman sucks. And you know who else sucks? Dick Jauron. I could definitely see Jauron repeating his head-coaching performance from Chicago, riding a solid defense, a weak quarterback and a week schedule in the next two or three years and surprising everybody with a 12-4 record that earns Jauron Coach of the Year acclaim?or something like that. Happens all the time. Jauron won it in Chicago and then proceeded to fall on his face once his club was exposed for the overachieving, untalented group it was. You know who else won Coach of the Year? Jim Haslett. So?yeah.