The Patriots have won 12 of the last 17 AFC East titles, and that includes twice when they lost it on a tiebreaker (2002, 2008). New England's domination of the division has been why they've remained an AFC Super Bowl contender for the last decade, well past their dynasty years.
Through nearly a full roster overhaul, the Pats have just kept on rolling off one division title after another.
In 2012, the Patriots won the AFC East handily by five games for the second year in a row, and while last season didn't give us any reason to think things will be different in 2013, there are certainly some steps each AFC East team should take based on the examples of teams who have beat New England.
Decade of Divisional Dominance
Before the Bills beat the Pats in 2011, New England had dispatched Buffalo 15 straight times dating back to the 2003 opener. Buffalo has given the Patriots a better shot than either the Jets or Dolphins over the last two seasons. The Ryan Fitzpatrick-Chan Gailey Bills were 1-3 in that time, but put up an average of 315 passing yards per game on New England's defense. The problem of stopping Tom Brady remained unsolved however, and that once again derailed the Bills' new regime.
The Patriots had a streak of seven wins against the Jets in the early 2000s, with New York stealing only the final game on mud in Foxboro, in 2006, before Rex Ryan arrived. Rex's Jets held serve at home twice against New England, in 2009 and 2010, but got smoked in both rematches later those seasons. The 2010 upset divisional playoff win was the peak of the Mark Sanchez and Ryan era, and it was an injury-plagued descent from there into a sub-.500 team.
The Patriots have won the last four straight against the Jets, including the latest from Thanksgiving, made infamous by the Buttfumble and three Patriots touchdowns in 52 seconds. Rex Ryan remains, but the Jets are in essence starting over again like the Bills.
The Dolphins' most famous recent win against New England was when they unveiled the Wildcat in Week 3 of 2008, taking the Patriots and their old and slow defense by surprise and running all over them. The Dolphins are the only team the Patriots still have an overall losing record to (45-50).
Miami has had their occasional upsets over the years (2004, 2006, 2009), but usually at the end of the season in a somewhat meaningless game for the Pats. No one has seen more of the Patriots backups than the Dolphins.
But Miami is the only other AFC East team who knows who their starting quarterback is. The Dolphins also have a lot of cash to spend, though they do have plenty of their own free agents to address. Quality players like Sean Smith, Jake Long and Reggie Bush could all be headed out of town, but compared to the rest of the AFC East, Miami is best setup to challenge New England in 2013.
The Dolphins are well aware they must catch the Pats (via Christopher Price of WEEI.com):
“There’s a gap,” Miami GM Jeff Ireland acknowledged Thursday at the combine when asked about the distance between the Patriots and the rest of the division. “We have to close that gap -- I think it’s a five-game gap, right now, in wins and losses. That’s what the gap is. We have to close that gap, and we plan to do our best job and put our best foot forward and getting that done this offseason. Whether we can completely close the gap … we have to get back on the field and close the gap on the field. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to talk about it right now.”
It's hard to know exactly how the Patriots will evolve this offseason themselves, but based on what we've seen from New England the last two seasons, here's what the rest of the AFC East should be focusing on.
Attack the Flat
If there's one thing everyone should've learned from Buffalo, it's that the Patriots struggle covering the middle of the field against tight ends and slot receivers. This is somewhat ironic since New England's own offense is almost entirely based on exploiting the middle of the field, so it makes you wonder what New England's practices look like.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's quick passes ate up New England's defense, exposing their linebackers and safeties in coverage, as well as their lack of interior pass rush. Even the Jets had some success with this attack against the Patriots when Mark Sanchez was clicking with Dustin Keller and Santonio Holmes.
Perhaps the most glaring example was Baltimore's attack on the middle of the Patriots defense in the the AFC Championship. Joe Flacco threw for 182 of his 240 total yards and three touchdowns in the middle of the field. The Pats had no answers for Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, and you can bet fixing that problem is their biggest defensive priority this offseason.
The Dolphins, Jets and Bills should target an array of pass-catching tight ends and slot receivers, the more athletic and versatile the better. If the Patriots are unable to retain Wes Welker, it's scary to think how badly he might tear up New England's defense.
Spin The Dial on Defense
Not enough teams understand what is required to confuse and slow down Tom Brady. Here's a fantastic tidbit from Eric Mangini back in 2011 about what his Browns did to take Brady off his game (via Livedash.com):
The first thing we did was make sure we can try to keep Tom Brady off the field as long as possible. You saw where the time of possession was. We wanted to put together long sustained drives that ended in points. The longer we could keep them off the field, the less opportunity he was going to have to score, which he is eventually going to do as good as he is. The other thing is you can't give him pre-snap information. And, he is going to look at things. He is going to do everything he can to gather information on what the defense is doing and if you give him the same looks, if he knows it goes. And we moved guys around from where they were, changing linebacker spots, focused on the skies all during the week, and told the guys if you are not lying you are not trying. Everybody had to do it. Nobody could be the tell there. The other thing is, going into the second half, we had a different plan we were going to use. Saying, they're going to make the adjustment based on what we have done in the first half. Now we have got to bring something out that is different that he hasn't seen to this point in the game. Let them try to figure that out. Then we can go back to the other stuff that we used initially.
This is a two-part element for any defense to compete effectively against the Pats.
First, it's having the coaching staff who can see what Dean Pees in Baltimore and Rex Ryan have done, which is much of what Mangini mentioned. Different coverages on every snap, complete pre-snap disguise and a steady alternation between man and zone concepts. They can't play timid; they must send an all out blitz on one snap, then drop 10 into coverage the next. It's hard to be that disciplined and fearless. That's why so few teams have success against Brady.
The second element is having the players to execute the scheme. The Giants have consistently beaten the Patriots in recent years with their ability to generate pressure with only four rushers, along with significant disguise. Acquiring four defensive linemen who can do that is tough, but teams like the Ravens and Jets have given the Patriots problems even without a collection of elite pass-rushers.
Ultimately, it comes down to having a disciplined defense that will not get rattled and can stick to a game plan designed to confuse Brady and keep him guessing.
The Jets, Dolphins and Bills should all be on the lookout for pass-rushers just like every other NFL team is, but specifically finding heady veterans who can go toe-to-toe with Brady mentally would go a long way toward building a defense that can keep the Pats under 20 points.
Five More Seasons of Brady
For any AFC East team to dethrone the Patriots, they'll have to not only beat New England twice, but also remain consistent throughout the rest of the season against the rest of their schedule. Tom Brady has five more seasons, too long for any opposing regime to wait him out.
All three teams must make every move this offseason with the Patriots in mind. But putting the right team together is only the first part, executing in Foxboro in December is something else entirely.