AFC East Preview: Are Patriots Vulnerable Enough To Crash And Burn?

The New England Patriots have ruled the AFC East for nearly two decades. Will things change in 2018?

The Patriots, winners of nine straight division titles, have secured the AFC East’s top spot in 15 of the last 17 seasons, with the only exceptions coming in 2002 (after New England’s first Super Bowl title) and 2008 (when quarterback Tom Brady tore his ACL in Week 1 and the Pats went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm). It’s been an amazing run of dominance, no matter how you slice it.

There’s been reports of tension in Foxboro over the last few months, though, and Brady is entering his age-41 season. Perhaps this will open the door for the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and/or Miami Dolphins to make some noise, especially with the Patriots, who are coming off a Super Bowl LII loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, losing some key players over the offseason.

Here’s our AFC East preview.

DIVISION ODDS (courtesy of Bovada, via OddsShark)
New England Patriots -700
Buffalo Bills +1100
Miami Dolphins +1100
New York Jets +1600

DIVISION FAVORITE
New England Patriots — The Patriots are as vulnerable as they’ve been in a while, and this could be one of head coach Bill Belichick’s toughest seasons yet, especially if Brady shows any regression on the heels of his MVP campaign. There are flaws on New England’s roster — lack of offensive weapons, a shake-up along the offensive line, questions about the pass rush, Malcolm Butler’s departure in the secondary, etc. — and it could become increasingly difficult to mask those if there really is any friction brewing between Belichick and his players, namely No. 12.

That said, none of the other three teams in the division looks poised to overtake the defending AFC champions. And until there is tangible evidence to suggest Brady is declining, or that he and Belichick can’t coexist any longer, there’s very little reason to expect a change atop the AFC East in 2018.

DIVISION SLEEPER
New York Jets — The Jets have talent on all three levels of their defense, with Leonard Williams anchoring the defensive line, Avery Williamson solidifying the linebacking corps and stud cornerback Trumaine Johnson joining a secondary that includes a couple of solid building blocks in safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. If rookie quarterback Sam Darnold can make an immediate impact after being drafted third overall, there’s reason to believe the Jets will vastly improve on the 5-11 record they’ve posted in each of the past two seasons.

IMPACT NEWCOMERS
Bills QB Josh Allen — Buffalo named Nathan Peterman starting quarterback to open the season, with Tyrod Taylor traded to the Cleveland Browns back in March. But Allen is viewed as the organization’s quarterback of the future after the Bills traded up to No. 7 overall to nab the Wyoming product. He should get a chance to showcase his raw talent sooner rather than later, for better or worse.

Dolphins DE Robert Quinn — The Dolphins acquired Quinn, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, in a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. He hasn’t been the same player over the past few seasons, thanks in large to injury issues, but he’s still just 28 years old and could help mitigate the loss of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh if he recaptures his old magic. Quinn registered 40 sacks over three seasons from 2012 through 2014, including a career-high 19 in 2013.

Dolphins G Josh Sitton — Miami’s offensive line could improve this season despite the loss of center Mike Pouncey. That’s because they acquired center Daniel Kilgore in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers and signed Sitton, a four-time Pro Bowl pick who should stop the team’s revolving door at guard.

Jets QB Sam Darnold — The Jets clearly believe in Darnold, as they surrendered three second-round picks in addition to the No. 6 overall pick to move up to No. 3 to select the USC quarterback. It’s a huge gamble, but it’s one New York couldn’t pass up. The Jets have had four quarterbacks make a combined five Pro Bowls — Ken O’Brien (two), Brett Favre, Boomer Esiason and Vinny Testaverde — since Joe Namath’s last Pro Bowl in 1972.

Jets CB Trumaine Johnson — The Jets gave Johnson a five-year, $72.5 million contract with $34 million guaranteed. That should tell you everything you need to know about their expectations for the 28-year-old cornerback.

Patriots RB Sony Michel — It’s hard to imagine New England suddenly becoming a ground-and-pound team, especially with TB12 still slinging missiles. So selecting Michel at No. 31 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft definitely shocked some folks. But the Patriots lost running back Dion Lewis — a key contributor on the ground and through the air — and Michel could have a major role right out of the gate.

MAJOR STORYLINE
Will either highly touted rookie quarterback stand out?

New England ultimately could be responsible for its own demise if reports of organizational disconnect are accurate. However, the AFC East also could become competitive again if a team besides the Patriots finally finds an elite quarterback — or any type of QB stability, for that matter.

Say whatever you want about Darnold and/or Allen — the No. 3 and No. 7 picks, respectively, in what was considered a deep quarterback draft class — but both face lofty expectations and could completely shake the landscape of the division if they live up to their potential.

Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images

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