The New England Patriots have maintained a stranglehold on the AFC East over the past decade-and-a-half, winning each of the last seven division titles and 12 of the last 13.
But with Tom Brady’s Deflategate suspension rendering the Patriots’ superstar quarterback unavailable until Week 5, is this the year the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins or New York Jets finally knock New England off its lofty perch?
We don’t see it shaking out that way.
Even with Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, taking the reins for the first four games, the Patriots have enough talent on both sides of the ball to not only nab an eighth consecutive division title, but also contend for their fifth Super Bowl championship of the Brady-Bill Belichick era.
The Pats aren’t runaway favorites, though. Here’s a look at their three AFC East competitors and where we expect each to finish this season:
Predicted finish: Third
The Bills’ highly touted defense was a dumpster fire last season, finishing in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories, including 24th in defensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value 0ver average). Can a Rex Ryan-coached D be that bad two seasons in a row? Buffalo’s hopes of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the Music City Miracle — not to mention Ryan’s of keeping his job — hinge on the answer to that question being “no.”
Ryan also must instill some discipline in his team, which led the NFL in penalties last season. The deck will be stacked against the Bills from the opening kickoff, too, as they’ve already lost top draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland to injury and star defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to a four-game suspension.
If the defense can play at an even respectable level, though, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor continues to trend up after a solid first season as a starter, a postseason berth is not out of the question.
Predicted finish: Fourth
Ryan Tannehill hasn’t been terrible during his four seasons as Miami’s quarterback, but he hasn’t been anywhere close to great, either. If he’s ever going to take that next step, this would be the year to do so under the tutelage of new Dolphins coach — and renowned quarterback whisperer — Adam Gase.
Elsewhere on offense, the Dolphins should field a strong offensive line and a promising young receiving corps, and they’ll be hoping ex-Texans running back Arian Foster can get back on track after injuries limited him to just four games last season. On the other side of the ball, newcomers Jason Jones and Mario Williams are expected to play prominent roles in a Dolphins defense that was one of the NFL’s worst in 2015.
If all goes to plan, Miami will improve upon the 6-10 record they posted last season. But they have the look of a last-place team.
New York Jets
Predicted finish: Second
The Jets finally re-signed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after a months-long contract stalemate, and he’ll again be throwing to one of the NFL’s better receivers in Brandon Marshall. And New York needn’t worry about its defense, which is absolutely loaded with talent, especially up front (Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams).
At 10-6, the Jets finished just two games behind the Patriots in the AFC East standings last season, the closest any team has come to toppling New England since the Mark Sanchez-led Jets finished one game back in 2009.
Two burning questions: Will Fitzpatrick be able to replicate his record-setting 2015 season (franchise-best 31 touchdown passes), and will the Jets be able to survive their brutal early schedule? Five of their first six games are against playoff teams from last season, including trips to Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Arizona.
Thumbnail photo via Jim O’Connor/USA TODAY Sports Images