The popular notion is that the New England Patriots have enjoyed a stranglehold on the AFC East for close to the last decade.
While New England has won the division six out of the last eight years, its division counterparts have taken aggressive steps to try and dethrone Belichick and company from their perch atop the AFC East.
Just last season the AFC East was not decided until Week 17. Tom Brady’s unfortunate season-ending knee injury in Week 1 opened the door for not only Matt Cassel but also for the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets to make a play for the division crown.
The Dolphins, who went into last season expected to show minimal improvement to its 1-win season in 2007, took everyone by surprise, especially the Patriots, in the two teams’ first matchup early last season in Foxborough.
Led by the seemingly next great NFL fad, the Wildcat, the Dolphins ran over, through and around the Patriots for an early-season blowout victory at Gillette Stadium, which was the spark that led the Dolphins to their first division title since 2000.
But the Jets were very much in the mix for the AFC East crown in 2008. After landing the legendary Brett Favre in a trade from the Green Bay Packers, the Jets were 8-3 after 11games and looked poised to be led on one last great playoff run by the future Hall of Famer.
Unfortunately for the Jets, Favre’s arm appeared to betray him down the stretch and the Jets lost the division to the Dolphins when the two teams met in the last week of the season, in what may or may not have been Favre’s last game.
The Dolphins, Jets and Buffalo Bills have all taken steps this offseason to close the gap on the Patriots. The Bills have made the biggest splash by far, signing the much-maligned, albeit productive, Terrell Owens to a 1-year contract following the outspoken receiver’s release from the Dallas Cowboys.
While it is unclear how much T.O.’s presence will help (or hurt) the Bills this upcoming season, the Jets made a big splash of their own during the NFL Draft. The Jets traded into the no. 5 spot in the draft and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. As a result the rookie quarterback has been hitched to new head coach Rex Ryan in Ryan’s quest to bring the Jets back to prominence.
The Dolphins appeared to play it cool following their surprise division title win in 2008, re-signing key contributors and signing potential new ones like safety Gibril Wilson. The team made an interesting selection with one of its early picks in the NFL Draft when they took West Virginia quarterback Pat White in the second round.
Many think White will be a dangerous new weapon for the Dolphins’ Wildcat offense and some even speculate he can challenge apparent quarterback-of-the-future Chad Henne for the no. 2 spot on the depth chart behind starter Chad Pennington.
As far as the Patriots go, the defection of former Vice President of Personnel Scott Pioli to Kansas City has done little to steer the Patriots from their usual prerogative of signing veteran free agents to fill holes in key areas.
Running back Fred Taylor, who was surprisingly released by the Jacksonville Jaguars, signed on with the Patriots as did Joey Galloway, the veteran receiver whose increase in age has had little effect on his ability to be an explosive playmaker.
The Patriots secondary has also received a boost with the additions of Shawn Springsand Leigh Bodden. The unit will also receive an infusion of youth this upcoming season as the Patriots spent two of their first three draft picks on safety Patrick Chung from Oregon and cornerback Darius Butler from Connecticut.
On paper it appears as if the AFC East has become among the most competitive divisions in football. But if Brady returns from his knee injury with no lingering effects the division may once again be known as the Patriots and then everyone else.
But if Brady is still not 100 percent when the season starts or if the offseason additions of the Bills, Dolphins and/or Jets make an immediate impact, the AFC East of 2009 may be the same dogfight it was in 2008.