Every few months it’s important to stop and take a look at the big picture that the AFC East paints. You can get a little lost in researching position match-ups and tabulating individual statistics. The weekly injury reports and press conferences can blind you to how each team is doing in relation to the conference and other division members. When the season starts, each team has one goal – winning the Super Bowl. That message can become muddled in the weekly grind of beating opponents and rehabbing injuries. The State of the AFC East is not just important to Patriots fans for this season, but for many seasons ahead.
New England Patriots (9-2)
Remaining opponents: LA Rams (4-7), Baltimore Ravens (6-5), at Denver Broncos (7-4), NY Jets (3-8), at Miami Dolphins (7-4)
The journey can be more interesting than the destination. That can certainly apply to the 2016 New England Patriots. From the the highs of a four-game winning streak with backup quarterbacks to the lows of sending away a generational athletic talent for a marginal return. But through it all this, the squad has persevered and has proven why they are the cream of the AFC East. They are sitting at 9-2 and the NFL world is their oyster. The schedule is not easy but pales in comparison to the primary competition to the #1 seed – the Oakland Raiders. They have three away games against all of their divisional opponents and two home games against decent teams. The Raiders are not even assured the division as the Broncos and Chiefs are nipping right at their heels.
The Patriots offense is in very good shape. Short of a couple of nagging injuries to Chris Hogan and Martellus Bennett they are in good shape for the stretch run. The loss of Gronkowski for the remainder of the season hurts, but the 2016 Patriots are far more equipped to handle his sudden departure then perhaps any team in recent memory. The running backs are finally at full strength and proving they can be a factor in games in a variety of ways. The offensive line has coalesced into a versatile unit that protects the passer as well as boosts the run game. Quarterback Tom Brady is as sharp as ever and proving that at age 39 he has many more years to go. Backups Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett both look more than capable at running the offense after their short stints when Brady was suspended. The wide receivers and tight ends have proven adept after the intense competition of training camp. The variety and ability to change game plans on the fly have proven to be the x-factor that has won games for the team.
The defense stands in stark contrast to their counterparts. After dominating and being the primary reason for the four game-winning streak without Brady, they have slacked off and become a unit that is searching for an identity. Players that were expected to be an integral part of a play-making defense have either been shipped out or lost their jobs to others. The Patriots brought in some new pieces but they are still searching for the best ways to use them. The low point came with Seahawks game. Coming off the bye and after trading Jamie Collins to the Browns you expected a statement game from the defense. Instead you got a flat performance and a suspect game plan that resulted in Russell Wilson being able to score at will. The defense has improved, but they need put in some dominant performances against some of the worst offenses in the league over the next few weeks as they prepare for the playoffs.
As they enter the stretch run they are poised to be a top seed and secure a bye week. As noted above, the Raiders are the only serious competition for the #1 and if they stumble,the Chiefs or the Broncos will take advantage of it. But that would mean lower numbers in the win column for the leader of the AFC West and more of a cushion for the Patriots. Of course this is all predicated on the Patriots taking care of their own business and ensuring that they play to win each week. If they can finish the season with just one or two more losses (depending on which opponents win), we should secure the #1 seed, and as long as we take the division we should have a bye week.
Another successful season is closing in a playoff run for the boys in silver,blue and red. The defense needs to hammer down and begin to play like the unit that dominated games at the beginning of the season. We’ll play teams that are good or are playing their best football of the year. The defense needs turnovers and stopped drives to keep the offense from having to score on every drive. If they do that, then another Lombardi Trophy is not out of the question and Brady gets his pinky ring.
Miami Dolphins (7-4)
Place in the division: 2nd and 2nd Wild Card spot
Remaining opponents: at Baltimore Ravens (6-5), Arizona Cardinals (4-6-1), at NY Jets (3-8), at Buffalo Bills (6-5), New England Patriots (9-2)
Talk about a team on a tear. After starting the season 1-4, they have since rattled off six straight wins. However, this is still a team with question marks. Only one of the wins in their streak have been by more than seven points, the 30-15 win against the Steelers.
In the beginning of the season, Ryan Tannehill looked like the same extreme up and down quarterback with more downs than ups. During the winning streak it looks like head coach Adam Gase has harnessed the offensive skill of his franchise player, added a dangerous running attack and created a consistent defensive identity. Considering the dysfunctionality of this team in previous years, he has done a good job keeping them in the playoff hunt this late in the season. They do need to limit opponents scoring after allowing the Jets, Bills and 49ers to score more than 22 points in each of their games and they have been riding a historical output from a previously marginalized player. If they can find that consistency they may be able to make some noise late in the year and even in the playoffs.
So can we truly say that we know what this team is capable of? The schedule does get slightly harder over the next month and they just moved into the second Wild Card spot on tiebreakers. And believe it or not, but the Bills are also nipping at their heels. I do see two to four losses in the remaining six games. A 10-6 record might secures a playoff spot and an 8-8 record sends you home with a nice participation trophy.
Buffalo Bills (6-5)
Place in the division: 3rd and in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Remaining opponents: at Oakland Raiders (9-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5), Cleveland Browns (0-12), Miami Dolphins (7-4), at NY Jets (3-8)
There are few teams that have looked as hapless as the Bills did in the first two games of the season. Defense couldn’t stop anyone and Greg Roman’s ground-and-pound offense and vertical passing game was not quite clicking. The team took the sudden and drastic action of letting the offensive coordinator go just six days into their season. The majority of the nation took it as a sign that this was just the same old Bills. Even the Bills faithful had a hard time conjuring up reasons why this season could turn out different than the previous 17 playoff-less seasons.
The team has responded by playing solid football. The defense started playing like the Rex Ryan units of old. Fast, confusing and physical. While the offense has not changed very much under Anthony Lynn’s leadership, they have executed better and the play-calling seems to take better advantage of the rhythm of the game. As a result they’re 6-3 and have themselves knocking on the Wild Card’s door and asking if there is room for one more. They definitely need help to make the postseason, but if they take care of the things that they can control, a winning season is not out of the question. This will save the Ryans’ jobs and prevent yet another rebuilding project in western NY.
NY Jets (3-8)
Place in the division: 4th and not technically eliminated.
Remaining opponents: Indianapolis Colts (5-6), at San Francisco 49ers (1-10), Miami Dolphins (7-4), at New England Patriots (9-2), Buffalo Bills (6-5)
Why does this team’s destiny always seem to be surrounded by quarterback controversy? If it’s not Joe Namath guaranteeing wins, it’s Brett Favre sending inappropriate pictures to persons not his wife. Or it’s Mark Sanchez forgetting how to play football, running into his own lineman and fumbling the ball and the game away. Last season ended on a sour note with the week 17 loss to the Bills that saw Ryan Fitzpatrick forget which team he played for. Then the off-season posturing and preening between the team and it’s quarterback. He briefly lost his job to Geno Smith and then Bryce Petty got a start when Fitzpatrick was injured. All the while they have a 2nd round draft pick playing 3rd string and fueling his own rumor mill about whether he can ever be an NFL-quality signal caller.
They are not making the playoffs. They are playing for next year and yet they still keep sending out guys that are not going to be on the team when 2017 opening day rolls around. The offensive line is in shambles. The receivers are good but aging. They might as well have not rostered any tight ends for all the impact that they had. The running backs have produced seven numbers, but relying on Matt Forte to reproduce them is like asking Fitzpatrick not to turn the ball over. The defense came into the season with its strengths in the defensive line and the corners. Following the disturbing decline of the all-world Darrelle Revis, the unit has been porous and lackluster. The defensive line was supposed to have too many stars for positions. And somehow they have caused more news off the field then on it, most notably missing your own birthday party.
Jets fans should get used to this. It’s going to take them a few years before they can make a push for playoff glory. The division is only getting tougher and they are treading water at best.
There you have it folks. The current state of the AFC East before we head into postseason craziness. Will the Patriots take the # 1 seed? Could the Dolphins knock off New England from their championship pedestal? Are the Bills a Cinderella story waiting to happen? And will we see the live implosion that is the Jets season? That’s what makes the game of football so compelling and dramatic and it only gets more intense the closer to the New Year we get.