Devin McCourty this week said “you’d be crazy” to call the New England Patriots the team to beat in the AFC East. And given their 2-4 record, it’s hard to argue with that.
But the Patriots aren’t dead and buried, either.
With the 5-2 Buffalo Bills looking eminently beatable of late and the 3-3 Miami Dolphins now under the direction of a rookie quarterback, this division is far from settled.
“I’ve been here and we’ve had successful seasons where we’ve lost more than four or five games,” Patriots center David Andrews said Wednesday. “So you can’t let the first six weeks determine your season. You’ve got to keep playing.”
That’s not to say Bill Belichick’s club isn’t in a precarious position. It most definitely is. Quarterback Cam Newton called Sunday’s showdown with Bills “a must-win” for the Patriots, as a loss would drop them to 2-5 and give Buffalo a potentially insurmountable division lead.
Since 1990, 146 teams have lost five of their first seven games. Just seven (4.8 percent) made the playoffs, and none advanced beyond the divisional round.
Win, though, and the Patriots would be just 1 1/2 games back with plenty of season left to play.
Ahead of that pivotal Week 8 matchup, here’s a look at the cases for and against the AFC East’s three contenders (sorry, New York Jets):
BUFFALO BILLS (5-2, first in AFC East)
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Third-year quarterback Josh Allen looked like a legitimate MVP candidate through the first four weeks, ranking in the top three in touchdown passes (12), passing yards (1,326), yards per attempt (8.96) and passer rating (122.7) while completing 71 percent of his passes and throwing just one interception. The Bills blitzed to a 4-0 start, scoring 27-plus points in each game.
Top offseason acquisition Stefon Diggs has exceeded expectations thus far, ranking in the top five in the NFL in catches (48) and receiving yards (603), and the former Minnesota Vikings star’s presence has created favorable matchups for the rest of Buffalo’s receiving corps. Through seven games, Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley, rookie Gabriel Davis and tight end Dawson Knox all are averaging more than 12 yards per reception.
The Bills steadily have built a talented roster under general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, who made moves to improve team that finished 10-6 and made the playoffs a year ago.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Allen has looked much more like the erratic Allen of old in recent weeks, struggling in back-to-back losses to the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs and failing to lead a touchdown drive in Sunday’s uninspiring 18-10 win over the winless Jets.
Buffalo’s defense also has regressed sharply despite returning most of the key pieces from its 2019 group that ranked second in points allowed and seventh in DVOA, a Football Outsiders stat that measures a unit’s overall efficiency. So far this season, they’re 15th in scoring defense and 21st in DVOA.
The Bills have allowed fewer than 20 points in just two of their first seven games, and both of those were against the Jets. They surrendered 43 points to a Titans team that hadn’t practiced in two weeks and let up 245 rushing yards against the Chiefs.
As good as Allen has looked at times, relying on him to win shootouts each week isn’t a sustainable strategy. The Bills also face the toughest remaining schedule of these three division title hopefuls, with games against the Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Patriots (twice) still to come.
MIAMI DOLPHINS (3-3, second in AFC East)
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: The Dolphins’ three wins (over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 49ers and Jets) all have been blowouts, and their three losses have been competitive. They lost by 10 at Gillette Stadium in Week 1, by three against Buffalo in Week 2 and by eight against Seattle on Week 4.
Brian Flores’ club doesn’t have the look of a Super Bowl contender at this point, but the former Patriots assistant quickly has made the Dolphins relevant again. If quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lives up to his pre-injury hype down the stretch, this team should at least be in the mix for a wild-card spot in the NFL’s expanded playoff structure.
Save for a tricky back-to-back against the Los Angeles Rams and Cardinals and late-season dates with the Chiefs and Bills, Miami’s remaining schedule is relatively soft.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Flores’ decision to replace Ryan Fitzpatrick with Tagovailoa was a major gamble.
Yes, the former Alabama standout’s ceiling is much, much higher than Fitzpatrick’s. But he’s also a rookie who’s coming off a major hip injury.
The inevitable regression likely was coming for the 37-year-old Fitzpatrick — who did not play well in Miami’s season-opening loss to New England and has a long track record of streakiness — but he had thrown six touchdown passes and posted a 124.9 passer rating over his final two games as the starter. Was this really the best time to make a change?
Flores clearly liked what he saw from Tagovailoa in practice. He’s extremely talented. But for all his promise, expecting him to enjoy a hiccup-free transition to the NFL game would be unrealistic.
Early growing pains for Tua could tank Miami’s playoff chances and lead to some consternation within the Dolphins’ locker room.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2-4, third in AFC East)
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: They’re the Patriots. They’ve won each of the last 11 AFC East titles and 16 of the last 17. They still have Bill Belichick. And Josh McDaniels.
They’ve also been one of the NFL’s best rushing teams this season (fourth in yards per game, sixth in yards per carry) despite myriad injuries along the offensive line. The defense has taken a big step back following its offseason exodus, but linebacker Josh Uche and defensive tackle Beau Allen could be internal solutions to two of that groups biggest problems. Rookie safety Kyle Dugger also has been a solid addition.
Yeah, the Patriots looked bad against the Denver Broncos and awful against the San Francisco 49ers, but they probably would’ve beaten the Chiefs had it not been for a few boneheaded Brian Hoyer mistakes, and they came within 1 yard of knocking off the Seahawks a few weeks earlier. They’ve nearly emptied their reserve/COVID-19 list.
New England likely will be without Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry this Sunday in Buffalo, but neither has been productive since the Seattle game, and the expected nasty weather conditions should lend more to a ground-based attack, anyway.
If Newton, who missed two weeks of valuable practice time after his positive COVID test, can find a way to recapture the form he showed in Weeks 1 and 2, New England can rebound from its worst start since 2001.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Beyond their poor record, the Patriots have looked resoundingly uncompetitive offensively during their three-game losing streak. They scored 10, 12 and 6 points in those losses while turning the ball over 11 times. They’ve topped 21 points just twice in six games, and those came against defenses ranked 28th (Seahawks) and 31st (Las Vegas Raiders) in DVOA.
Newton has played progressively worse in each of his last three starts, and his collection of receivers and tight ends might be the worst in the NFL. This week, he’ll probably be throwing to Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Ryan Izzo, Dalton Keene/Devin Asiasi and one or more practice squad call-ups.
New England also lacks top-end talent in the defensive front seven, and there’s no guarantee Uche (who’s never played an NFL snap) and Allen (who was buried at the bottom of Tampa Bay’s depth chart last season) will fix things.
Efficiency-wise, the Patriots’ defense has plummeted from first in DVOA in 2019 to 25th this season. They’ve been highly susceptible against the run, and their secondary, arguably the greatest strength of their roster, has allowed the fourth-most yards per pass attempt in the NFL.
Lose Sunday, and New England likely would need to win seven or eight of their final nine games to even have a shot at a wild-card berth. With games against the Baltimore Ravens, Cardinals, Rams and a rematch with the Bills still to come, that’d be tough to pull off.