The AFC East, otherwise known as the “New England Patriots and everyone else” division, typically features the annual dominance of the Patriots, intense competition between the other talented teams for a playoff berth, and also the Miami Dolphins. But could this year be different? Will Tom Brady’s four game suspension crush the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations? Will the New York Jets manage to secure a wild card spot or will the Buffalo Bills prevail? Will this finally be the year Dolphins fans have been waiting for? With all of those questions in mind, this is what I think the AFC East will look like at the end of the upcoming season.
Prediction: 6-10 (2-4 in the division)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Sorry Dolphins fans, it still isn’t your year. Miami is one of the teams in the AFC East lucky enough to get a shot at a Tom Brady-less New England squad, but one game certainly cannot save their season. Although stud defensive end Cameron Wake will return from a torn Achilles that prematurely ended last year’s campaign, the loss of Olivier Vernon to the Giants in free agency makes Miami’s front 7 much less formidable, even with an aging Mario Williams added at right end. The secondary also saw little improvement, as the Fins traded for cornerback Byron Maxwell, who struggled mightily in Philadelphia last season, while letting Brent Grimes walk in free agency. The Dolphins also appear to have taken a few steps backwards on the offensive side of the ball. Sure, a healthy DeVante Parker will be a welcome deep threat to play alongside a more dynamic wideout in Jarvis Landry, but the loss of Lamar Miller cannot be understated. Miller had a breakout year in the 2015-2016, finishing top 10 in rushing touchdowns, and an almost 29 year old Arian Foster coming off of an torn Achilles last season has no chance of even coming close to matching Miller’s production. Finally, the Dolphins “franchise quarterback” Ryan Tannehill showed last season that he may not be deserving of such a title (and the money that comes with it), as his completion percentage and his passer rating both suffered. I just can’t see a team that finished dead last in the division last year at 6-10 overcoming losses on both the offensive and defense front to become a viable competitor for the division title this year.
Prediction: 8-8 (3-3 in the division) Jacob Camenker
If you’re a Bills fan, please just hear me out on this one. I really like this Bills team. I really do. It’s easy for some to underestimate their offensive firepower, but Buffalo quietly may be home to one of the most explosive offensive units in the AFC. If Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy, both of whom missed chunks of last season due to injury, are both able to stay on the field and Tyrod Taylor continues his excellent play from last year, the Bills offense should be able to put up points in bunches against anybody. But as much as I love the Bills’ offense, two things are holding me back from penciling them in for a better record and a playoff spot. First, their schedule is absolutely brutal. Their first four games feature a road game in Baltimore, a matchup against the Arizona Cardinals (who I think just might be the best team in the NFL this season), and a showdown with the New England Patriots (albeit with Brady) in Foxborough. And towards the middle of the season, they face a 6 game stretch featuring Brady back from his suspension with his Patriots, the Seahawks, the Bengals, the Raiders, and the Steelers. Yikes. Now, are some of those games maybe winnable for the Bills? Sure. When you have an offense as prolific as I expect theirs to be, there is always a chance. But that brings me to the second thing holding me back from ranking them higher in this division and that is their defense. Under new coach Rex Ryan, the Bills highly-touted defense drastically underperformed last season. Their pass rush was extremely subpar, as they went from recording 54 sacks in 2014 to a paltry 21 in 2015.To put that in perspective, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans recorded 17.5 sacks last year by himself. The Bills defense also appeared to be undisciplined last season, leading the league in penalties with 143, causing a staggering 1249 yards to be lost to penalties. Unless the Bills defense can make major improvements in their pass rush and discipline, I believe they are destined for another 8-8 season, making Rex Ryan’s hot seat a whole lot warmer.
New York Jets
Prediction: 9-7 (3-3 in the division), AFC Wild Card
Last season’s New York Jets were just one win away from securing a berth in the 2016 NFL playoffs. What happened? Well, Jet’s quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick suffered a complete meltdown, completing just 43.2% of his passes and throwing 3 interceptions when faced with a struggling Bills defense. However, the Jet’s disappointing end to the season should not overshadow what they did manage to accomplish in 2015. Their All-Pro receiver Brandon Marshall racked up 14 receiving touchdowns, good enough to tie him for 1st in the NFL in that category, while opposite him Eric Decker finished 6th with 12. And in spite of an abysmal Brian Hoyer-esque performance in a critical win-and-in game, Ryan Fitzpatrick still had a career year last season, passing for career highs in yards (3905) and touchdowns (31). The loss of running back Chris Ivory, who finished top 5 in total rushing yards last season, will hurt their offensive attack, but Matt Forte, a dynamic back who can be effective in the passing and running game, is far from a bad replacement. The signature of the New York Jets is their defense, and everything indicates that they will remain a stout unit in the upcoming season. Although they did lose Damon “Snacks” Harrison on the defensive line, their line is still anchored by Pro-Bowl defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, All-Pro defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, and stud end Leonard Williams. Their impressive secondary from last season, led by Calvin Pryor and the famed Darelle Revis, has also been kept intact for 2016, and when paired with the Jet’s formidable pass rush, they should be effective in vexing opposing quarterbacks. While I think they will win one less game than they did in their 2015 campaign, I believe they will still be able to sneak into the playoffs. The AFC will be a much more competitive conference this year, with last year’s Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos poised to fall off a cliff while other teams like the Ravens, Jaguars, Raiders, and Colts are all in position to improve. In this more competitive environment, the road to the playoffs will become even more rugged, but I believe the Jets have what it takes to grind it out and secure a coveted Wild Card spot.
New England Patriots
Prediction: 12-4 (4-2 in the division), First Round Bye
Elise Amendola/AP Photo
October 9th, 2016. Save the date. It may look like just another NFL Sunday, but I promise you it is something far more. On that Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio, Tom Brady returns to the gridiron. And he will return with a vengeance. And man, do I feel bad for the poor Cleveland Browns. But in all seriousness, Brady’s four game suspension will do very little to derail the Patriots express line back to Super Bowl contention. They could easily go 2-2 during Brady’s absence as they face a moribund Dolphins team and an unimpressive Texans squad during that span, and perhaps even 3-1 if they manage to defeat Buffalo at home. But when Tom Brady gets back, get ready for a revenge tour for the ages. The Patriots front office gifted Brady with a few new offensive weapons for the upcoming season. They signed former Bills wideout Chris Hogan, nicknamed 7/11 because he is “always open,” and traded for former Bears star tight end Martellus Bennett. The acquisition of Bennett is especially intriguing, as he is an excellent pass catcher and strong blocker, allowing New England to utilize him in two tight end sets alongside arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history in Rob Gronkowski to create matchup nightmares all over the field. Throw in a backfield duo of an elusive Dion Lewis and a bruising LeGarrette Blount, the return of one of the best blocking fullbacks in the NFL in James Develin, and two dynamic wideouts in Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and New England owns perhaps the most potent offensive attack in all of football. Although the Patriots defense is not expected to be as elite as their offense, they still have a formidable unit. Sure, the loss of Chandler Jones will certainly be felt next season, but it certainly was not a crippling blow. To help mitigate Jones’ absence, the Patriots signed 355 pound defensive lineman Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton to clog up the middle in a role similar to that of former Patriot great Vince Wilfork, which should make their defensive line more stout against opposing running backs. The Patriots still have an elite linebacker core highlighted by the hard-hitting Dont’a Hightower and athletic freak Jamie Collins, and also improved their elite secondary by adding star Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones to their core of Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, and Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. When a team that was just one successful two-point conversion away from a consecutive Super Bowl appearance (not that I’m salty about that or anything) wins the offseason the following summer, it spells trouble for the rest of the league. And Brady’s Patriots will have no trouble once again securing the AFC East crown on their road to redemption.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference