For quite a few years now, this division could be summed up by saying there are the New England Patriots, and then there is everybody else. The Patriots have been far and away the most successful franchise in the league in the 21st century, and so much of their success has come at the expense particularly of their generally weaker AFC East opponents. With the exception of the 2002 and 2008 seasons (and Brady was sidelined for all but a couple of quarters in 2008), the Patriots have won the division title every year since their first Super Bowl championship season in 2001. The Jets won the division in 2002 with a 9-7 record, beating New England n the tie-breaker, and the Dolphins beat the Patriots in a tie-breaker during the 2008 season, with each club having 11-5 marks. That is it as far as exceptions to the rule of Patriots supremacy in this division in the past decade and a half or so. That leaves plenty of questions about whether anyone else within this division can finally, truly challenge New England's lock on the top spot in this division. The Jets showed some strong signs last season, but were just edged out of qualifying for the playoffs with a bad loss in the regular seasons finale. The Bills and Dolphins both continue to show signs of improvement and building towards something, yet they both always seem to have stretches of their seasons when they get completely derailed. New England has benefited from this in the past, but how long can they continue to benefit from this? Will they once again defend their AFC East title, and be one of the top two seeds in the AFC? Or can someone in thsi division really give them at least a run for their money?
Here are my answers:
1. New England Patriots (projected division winners) - The New England Patriots have been a pillar of stability during the tumultuous age of free agency in the NFL. Somehow, Belichick and Brady have weathered virtually every storm, including some horrific scandals, injuries, and personnel departure, as well as age. Through it all, New England has enjoyed a winning record every season since 2001, and moreover, they have enjoyed far more success than any other franchise during that period. Since 2001, they have more playoff appearances (13), more Super Bowl appearances (6), and more Super Bowl championships (4) than any other team in the league. Last season's title defense was a perfect example of this, as the Patriots got off to a red hot 10-0 start, and people were beginning to wonder if New England could against have an undefeated regular season like they did in 2007. Although they lost four of their final six regular season games, they still nonetheless earned the second seed, and advanced to the AFC title game with a tough victory over Kansas City, before bowing out at Denver. Despite Brady's four game suspension for his role in "Deflate Gate," New England still figures to be this division's top team this season. The Patriots had one of the highest scoring offenses in the league last year, and their defense was rated within the top third in the league. That said, one source of concern for them was that the defense started giving up more points at key moments late in the season, which certainly contributed to the rather cold end after such a hot start to the season. Including the two playoff games, the Patriots allowed 20 points or more six times during that stretch, and they finished those last eight games with a 3-5 record, following the undefeated 10-0 start. Losing Chandler Jones hurt, and that means there will continue to be question marks with this defense. Still, New England has been the class of this division for so long, that it is beginning to be difficult to see any other scenario for the upcoming season. A solid team with exceptional coaching, talent, and experience all add up to a division title at the very least. As they seemingly always are, the Patriots are a legitimate title contender.
2. New York Jets (projected second place) - The New York Jets rebounded from an absolutely terrible 2014 season, when Gang Green wound up having one of the worst records in the league. Last season was a different story entirely, as the Jets made exclamation point style statements with big wins early in the year, and consistent winning throughout. The Jets went from a dismal 4-12 to 10-5 following a huge victory over the New England Patriots that prevented the Pats from obtaining the top seed yet again, which might have led to them having a much better chance at reaching the big game. This put New York in position to clinch a playoff berth in the final week of the season, before a disappointing loss in the regular season finale ended their season without a postseason berth. Still, the Jets have a lot to be proud of in such a remarkable turnaround, and there is reason to believe that they can build upon last year’s success and finally make it back to the playoffs this season. The last time that the Jets made it to the postseason was in the 2010 season, when they managed to reach their second straight AFC title game. The following season in 2011, they were taunted by a Super Bowl between their cross town rivals, the New York Giants, and their tormentors within the AFC East, the New England Patriots. The three seasons after did not fare all that much better, so last year’s 10-6 mark was refreshing, and restored hope to the Jets faithful.
3. Buffalo Bills (projected third place) - Who could have guessed that under head coach Rex Ryan, a coach known for his intensely physical approach to defense particularly, the Buffalo Bills would actually get weaker defensively? Certainly that was not what the scrip called for, and it came as somewhat of a shock. Yet, indeed, that is what happened. The Bills ranked in the middle of the pack on both offense and defense, and so it should serve as little to no surprise that they also had a middle of the pack record at 8-8. Not particularly good, and not particularly bad. Yet, the Ryan experiment in Buffalo is apparently far from over, and if anything, it should not be expected that the Bills will continue to drop on defense, but should be tougher this season. Somehow, it is a Ryan family tradition to being intensity and physicality to defenses, to give them an attitude about their approach towards opposing offenses. But the Bills defense allowed some teams to light up against them, particularly the first meeting with New England, when the Patriots scored 40 against the Bills. The real problem with the Bills was that they did not succeed in winning any major games that they were not supposed to win, with the possible exception of the sweep against the New York Jets, which had to be sweet for Ryan, who had been the head coach of Gang Green just prior to coming to Buffalo last season. However, they need to start beating teams that have consistent winning traditions, particularly the Pats. The Bills swept both the Jets and the Dolphins, but simply could not manage to beat the one team that could have given their season more legitimacy. Right now, Buffalo has the longest active drought in terms of qualifying for the playoffs, and stand alone as the only NFL team to never have qualified for the postseason in the 21st century. If that is to change, they need to beat some of the big boys, and in particular, they need to solve New England. Unless they do that, they just cannot be seen as a serious threat. And the uncertainty at the quarterback position is really beginning to kill this team, because they really do have some talent - potentially enough to make a real run at the playoffs. But the window of opportunity is closing fast.
4. Miami Dolphins (projected last place) - Miami seems to always flirt with greater success, always seems to be a season or two away from finally making a splash. Yet, they always have something go wrong enough in each season that they fall short of making the playoffs time and time again. Tannehill is still the starter, it seems, but instead of progressing, he seemed at times to be regressing a bit last year. Miami's offense was one of the worst in the league, producing fewer points than all but five teams in the league, and that might have been still worse if not for a two week stretch when the offense looked positively explosive, scoring 38 points and 44 points in consecutive weeks. Their defense was a bit better, but they were hardly a fantastic unit, ranking in the bottom half of the league. The Dolphins played well at times, during certain games, but they were not able to do so consistently, which accounted for their rather poor 6-10 mark on the year. They absolutely have to start showing improvement on both sides of the ball to really challenge New England this season, or this will be yet another disappointing season that falls way short of the mark. Without some stability and consistent play, that is where Miami is heading, and from where I am sitting now, it is hard to envision the Dolphins actually achieving much more than mediocrity again this coming season.