Two seasons ago, when the New England Patriots coasted to a perfect 16-0 regular season record, they were the beneficiary of six "gimme" AFC East games.
Tom Brady and Co. stormed past their divisional rivals—Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets—by an average of 25.5 points. Those three teams finished a dismal 12-36 on the season, and, needless to say, didn't come within 10 points of defeating the Patriots.
But this season, even with Tom Brady expected to be back at full-strength, the AFC East certainly won't be the cakewalk it was in 2007.
First, there's the Miami Dolphins, who, after the addition of veteran quarterback Chad Pennington, rebounded from a disastrous 1-15 record in 2007 to win the division at 11-5 last season.
In Week 3, Miami dealt New England its first regular season loss in 650 days when the Dolphins’ “Wildcat” formation terrorized a confused and tired Patriots defense en route to a 38-13 victory.
Since then, Miami has added more pieces that make another divisional crown a distinct possibility. Former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Jason Taylor re-joined the Dolphins after a one-year hiatus in Washington.
The Dolphins beefed up their offensive line with the addition of former Oakland Raiders center Jake Grove and drafted former West Virginia quarterback Pat White in the second-round to add another dimension to their already-dangerous “Wildcat” attack.
White, a prolific runner and capable passer, figures to man the quarterback position, while tailbacks Ronnie Brown (who took the direct snap in the formation last season) and Ricky Williams flank him on both sides as running threats.
It remains to be seen whether White will emerge as a valuable acquisition, but there is little doubt that the Buffalo Bills improved themselves greatly with the signing of ex-Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens.
After jumping out to a 5-1 start last season, the Bills stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their last 10 games and averaging just 176 passing yards per game in that span. Placing Owens opposite speedster Lee Evans gives quarterback Trent Edwards arguably the top 1-2 receiver combination in the NFL.
Running back Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games of the regular season, but once he returns, there’s reason to believe Buffalo’s offense will be potent enough to put together a playoff run.
Then, there’s the New York Jets. Despite the Brett Favre debacle last season, the Jets posted a 10-6 record and improved in nearly all facets. Between defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and a stable core of linebackers—led by David Harris, Calvin Pace and recently-acquired Bart Scott—the Jets have a defense capable of making big plays.
New York will need that defense to step up big to ease the transition of former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, who figures to take over the starting job from Day one. Though the Jets are projected to finish last in the AFC East, they were 1-1 versus New England last year and certainly are talented enough to make some noise in the division.
So, what does it all mean for the Patriots? Back in 2007, the AFC East was probably the worst division in football. This year, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one (though cases can be made for the NFC East and AFC South, as well).
Is it possible for New England to go 6-0 in the division again? Maybe, but the way the other three teams have improved, it seems unlikely. A 4-2 divisional record is a more realistic expectation for the Patriots, who could benefit greatly in the postseason from receiving such stiff competition in the AFC East.