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MIDWEEK REPORT

Conqueror of East must follow familiar map

FOXBOROUGH -- Safety Rodney Harrison has spent time in two divisions over his 13-year NFL career, and the contrast has been extreme.

As a nine-year member of the San Diego Chargers (1994-2002), Harrison was well versed in the AFC West's style of play. He remembers the West being a passing division, with players such as Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, and Raiders receiver Tim Brown the marquee names.

Then, Harrison signed with the Patriots and was indoctrinated into the AFC East, which he thinks is more run-oriented. That makes sense considering three of the four East teams play in the Northeast, where harsher weather conditions often make it harder to pass later in the year.

``It's always just tough, competitive football," Harrison said of the AFC East.

But there is no denying that the division has fallen on hard times.

The Dolphins are unexpectedly struggling, averaging 13 points a game. They face the toughest remaining schedule, in terms of opponents' winning percentage , of any team in the division.

The Bills continue to search for an identity under first-year coach Dick Jauron, with one of their main concerns a leaky offensive line that is struggling to protect third-year quarterback J.P. Losman.

Meanwhile, the potentially dangerous Jets are hanging around under former Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, as their big-play capability and quarterback Chad Pennington's accuracy currently makes them the No. 1 challenger to the Patriots. The Jets, whose no-huddle offense has kept foes off balance, have the easiest remaining schedule in the East.

Although the Patriots lead the division, they still have to hit the road for two division games, one of which takes place Sunday in Buffalo.

Here is one snapshot look at how the division has unfolded through six weeks:

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS(4-1, 3-0 East)

Wins over: Bills, Jets, Bengals, Dolphins.

Loss to: Broncos.

On schedule: The combined record of the final 11 opponents is 27-34. Only four of those teams have winning records: the Vikings (3-2), Colts (5-0), Bears (6-0), and Jaguars (3-2).

Key stat: Team is allowing just 14.8 points per game, tied for sixth-best in the NFL.

Biggest question: Who will emerge as an outside threat at receiver?

Top offensive performer: Running back Laurence Maroney -- 78 carries for 332 yards and three touchdowns.

Top defensive performer: Lineman Ty Warren -- credited by coaches with a team-high 38 tackles.

Quoteboard: ``The bye week is over for us. We're ready to get back to work, get on to Buffalo, a division game on the road. It doesn't get any bigger than that." -- coach Bill Belichick.

NEW YORK JETS(3-3, 2-1 East)

Wins over: Titans, Bills, Dolphins.

Losses to: Patriots, Colts, Jaguars.

On schedule: Combined record of final 10 opponents is 20-34 , giving them the East's easiest remaining schedule. Five of their remaining opponents have just one win -- and that doesn't include a season finale against the 0-5 Raiders. Their toughest remaining games appear to be at New England and at home against Chicago.

Key stat: Quarterback Chad Pennington leads the NFL in completing 68.5 percent of his passes on third down, and has a 110 passer rating on third down.

Biggest question: Will Pennington continue to play at such a high level?

Top offensive performer: Receiver Laveranues Coles -- second in the NFL in receiving yards (537) and tied for third in catches (38).

Top defensive performer: Safety Kerry Rhodes -- three forced fumbles as a blitzer and one interception.

Quoteboard: ``I told the players, wins are like children; they're all special in their own way. The key thing is going through the game and handling adversity." -- Mangini.

BUFFALO BILLS (2-4, 1-2 East)

Wins over: Dolphins, Vikings.

Losses to: Patriots, Jets, Bears, Lions.

Schedule talk: Combined record of final 10 opponents is 27-27 . Tough tests loom at home against the Patriots, Jaguars, and Chargers, and on the road against the Colts, Jets, and Ravens.

Key stat: Team is only converting on third down 27.8 percent of the time, the third-worst mark in the NFL.

Biggest question: Can the Bills' undersized run defense improve?

Top offensive performer: Receiver Lee Evans -- team-high 36 catches for 419 yards , with seven or more catches in four straight games.

Top defensive performer: Linebacker Angelo Crowell -- filled in on the strong side when Takeo Spikes was injured and is now back on the weak side.

Quoteboard: ``You always worry about a team's confidence. Whenever you lose a game, you feel like you're never going to win again. Whenever you win, you can't wait to win again. As we all know there's a big difference between those two emotions, so I'll be anxious to get back to work to try to correct the errors we're making and move forward." -- coach Dick Jauron.

MIAMI DOLPHINS (1-5, 0-3 East)

Win over: Titans.

Losses to: Steelers, Bills, Texans, Patriots, Jets.

Schedule talk: Combined record of their final 10 opponents is 30-24 , giving them the toughest remaining schedule of any team in the division. Road dates at Chicago and Indianapolis -- the league's lone undefeated teams -- are the toughest tests.

Key stat: The team has scored 3 points total in the first quarter this year.

Biggest question: What can be done to breathe life into one of the NFL's least-productive offenses?

Top offensive performer: Receiver Wes Welker -- leads the club with 33 catches.

Top defensive performer: End Jason Taylor -- team-high five sacks and two forced fumbles.

Quoteboard: ``All I can say is that we need to continue to work to try to get some of the things that are not going well corrected, so that we have a better probability of success. All I can tell you is we are either going to get it done or we're going to die trying, one or the other." -- coach Nick Saban.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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