Division Rivals to Threaten Patriots AFC East Reign in the Future

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Division Rivals to Threaten Patriots AFC East Reign in the Future
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With a game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints, Tom Brady (12) proved once again why he's an elite quarterback.

For now, the New England Patriots are in the driver’s seat. While the Miami Dolphins were a sexy pick to be a surprise playoff team and at least make New England sweat out another division crown, reality is leaning towards Miami being a year away from a real threat to the Patriots.

Even with significant injuries and the offense struggling, New England will win the AFC East. As long as quarterback Tom Brady is behind the wheel, Brady and the Patriots can cruise.

Can you see it? Brady is leaning to the side with his right hand at 12 o’clock on the wheel, with wife Gisele in the passenger seat. The weather’s perfect, so all windows are down, and so is the roof. Brady shields his eyes with sunglasses while the breeze blows through his hair (while he still has it since Brady’s father, Tom Sr., is bald).

Brady can navigate another division championship with his typical cool because the divisional rivals aren’t true threats this year. But in a year or two, the Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets could be gaining.

Face it, Patriot Nation: Brady isn’t getting younger, and this year he’s showing it more than ever. Granted, a Brady in decline is still better than all but a few quarterbacks in the league. And with his competitive fire and IQ, Brady remains an elite passer. But every week we see a few Brady passes that aren’t on target like they used to be.

Some passes aren't between the numbers like they used to be. Others skip at the feet of the receivers. The easy excuse is to blame his all-new receiving corps, but Brady made similar misses last season throwing to familiar targets.

In time, Brady and his receivers will develop chemistry, and his numbers will improve from the current 56.9 completion percentage. But time isn’t something Brady has much of anymore.

At 36 years old, Brady is at a point when many veteran quarterbacks have accepted backup roles and are sailing into the sunset of their careers. Brady is squeezing everything he can out of his body while he can. Brady told Peter King of Sports Illustrated that he wants to play beyond 40. That threshold arrives in less than four years. Will Brady still be playing at an elite level as he approaches the big 4-0?

While the clock is ticking on Brady, New England’s rivals are hoping their quarterbacks will mature into franchise ones.

Marc Serota/Getty Images
Ryan Tannehill would be a lot better in 2013 if the Dolphins offensive line gave him adequate protection.

Miami is led by second-year passer Ryan Tannehill, while the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets handed over their offenses to rookies E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, respectively. All three are new-generation quarterbacks with the mobility to make plays with their feet as well as their arms. Their athleticism is a stark contrast to Brady the pocket passer, making Brady look like an old-model quarterback who will become obsolete sooner rather than later.

These AFC East young guns have taken some lumps this season. Manuel suffered injuries that knocked him out of games, including Sunday’s start against Cincinnati. Tannehill has been sacked 24 times already, which is almost being sacked five times per game. And Smith has been wildly inconsistent, making bone-headed decisions that raise doubts of whether Smith will eventually “get it.”

But they also had their moments. Manuel almost beat the Patriots in the season opener by playing an efficient game. Against the Carolina Panthers the following week, Manuel drove Buffalo 80 yards to a game-winning touchdown pass with :06 seconds left to play.

Tannehill has been resilient behind Miami’s so-called offensive line and led the Dolphins to a 3-0 start, including a game-winning drive against the Atlanta Falcons sealed by a touchdown pass with :43 seconds remaining.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
With all the tools to become a franchise quarterback, Geno Smith needs his head to catch up to his physical abilities to become the Jets' franchise quarterback.

And Smith, for all his gaffes, orchestrated three come-from-behind wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bills and the Falcons, the last under the national spotlight of Monday Night Football. To perform like Smith did under that pressure is a very encouraging sign for the Jets, who haven’t had a consistent field general since Chad Pennington.

If the Patriots intend to maintain their hegemony, they need a successor to Brady. That person likely will come from the draft, since Ryan Mallett is not Brady’s heir.

After investing three years to develop the rocket-armed Mallett, he barely grew as a player. Mallett’s accuracy never reached 60-percent in the preseason. And though he threw three touchdowns and one interception the past two preseasons, Mallett failed to consistently drive the offense.

Mallett’s contract expires after the 2014 season, per Spotrac.com, but it’s time to part ways. Maybe New England can find a trade partner for Mallett. Otherwise the Patriots could select a quarterback to compete with Mallett and groom the rookie, like the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers.

Depending upon early entries, the 2014 draft could be deep at the quarterback position, giving New England the option to select a passer as soon as the first or second round.

If New England decides to select a quarterback, he will take a back seat to Brady for a few years, as expected. If he lives up to the potential, he will be ready once it’s his time to take the wheel and keep the Patriots ahead of the division rivals.

Questions? Comments? Send to randolphc82@comcast.net.

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