The AFC East is no longer made up of the New England Patriots and three other teams.
However, while the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Buffalo Bills are improving and could all challenge for playoff berths this season, the road to the AFC East title still runs through Foxboro.
The Dolphins, not New England, are actually defending division champions. While Miami displayed a lot of moxie last year, and Tony Sparano showed that a coach willing to be innovative can be successful in the NFL, let's review what had to happen for Miami to win the division.
Arguably the best player in the NFL, Tom Brady, had to go down with a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of New England's season-opening game.
The Patriots then had to rely on a quarterback that hadn't started a game since high school. Again, Matt Cassel never started a game at quarterback in college or the NFL before Week Two of last season. (He did, however, start one game at tight end.)
Even with all that, plus a rash of injuries on the defense, against them, it took Brett Favre throwing away the division in the final game of the season for the Patriots not to win another AFC East crown.
With Brady out for the year, New England still almost won the division yet again. How?
Belichick was already a first ballot Hall of Famer before last season. He had already won three Super Bowl titles and was considered among the greatest football minds to ever roam the sidelines.
Yet, for all the praise he's received, I believe last season was Belichick's best coaching job by far.
Because the Dolphins and Falcons were so bad in 2007, it was inevitable that Sparano and Atlanta’s Mike Smith would battle it out for Coach of the Year.
While I'm not saying those two weren't worthy candidates, I don't understand how Belichick didn't get more votes and recognition for what he accomplished last year.
Here is my argument: The Dallas Cowboys had a ton of talent. They won nine games and missed the playoffs.
The San Diego Chargers had a ton of talent. They won eight games and barely snuck into the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Eagles had a ton of talent. They won nine games and needed a miracle on the final day of the season to make the playoffs.
The Patriots lost the most important player in the NFL, and Belichick found a way to win 11 games with a guy under center who hadn't played a meaningful game at quarterback in seven years.
A quarterback who looked so bad in preseason games the past two years, some Patriots fans were surprised that he even made the team.
So my question is: How many other coaches could have won 11 games after losing Tom Brady and starting Matt Cassel in his place?
The answer? None.
Seriously, anyone reading this article knows deep down the answer is none, even if you despise Belichick and the Patriots.
How many games would Belichick have won with talented teams like the Cowboys, Chargers, and Eagles? I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet it would have been a heck of a lot more than eight or nine.
Now here we are a couple of months away from the start of the 2009 season, and the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills are excited about challenging New England for division supremacy—and for good reason.
The Jets are building one of the best defenses in the NFL, and the addition of new head coach Rex Ryan is only going to help speed up that process.
Darrelle Revis, Calvin Pace, David Harris, Bart Scott, and Kerry Rhodes should lead one of the NFL’s top defensive units.
The Dolphins are flying high after winning the division in 2008, and I don’t think this is going to be a one-hit wonder under Sparano.
He kind of reminds me of Belichick in a lot of ways, and in my opinion, Miami is a franchise that’s going to compete for many years, assuming the quarterback position remains settled.
Even Buffalo—a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 years—didn't sit still this offseason. The Bills made a major splash by signing Terrell Owens.
The combination of T.O. and Lee Evans should give young quarterback Trent Edwards one of the top receiving tandems in the league.
With rumors swirling that the Bills are going to bring back the no-huddle offense this fall, there is a lot of excitement in Buffalo for the 2009 season.
But just when these teams are feeling good about their prospects for the upcoming season, they have to look at the Patriots. Belichick is still there. Brady is returning. Randy Moss and Wes Welker make it almost unfair for defenses to try to cover them.
Not to mention the Patriots brought in their usual bevy of under-the-radar veteran help this offseason. I loved both the Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway signings.
Taylor teamed with Sammy Morris gives New England a perfect one-two punch in its backfield. I believe Taylor still has a couple of productive seasons left in those powerful legs.
Galloway has "Darrell Green speed." What I mean by that is he can be 50 years old, fall out of bed, and still run a 4.3. A lot of my friends are Giants fans, and I really thought Galloway would have been a perfect fit in New York.
If Galloway is healthy, who do you double-cover? The easy answer is Galloway instead of Moss or Welker. Go ahead and give that a try.
When Galloway is healthy, there still isn’t a corner in the NFL that can stay with him one-on-one. If he isn't healthy, the Patriots spent virtually nothing to give him a shot.
Then you look at what New England did in the secondary. First, getting rid of Ellis Hobbs is an upgrade.
Why are people saying the Patriots got robbed by the Eagles because they gave up Hobbs for two fifth-round draft picks? Has anyone ever watched Hobbs play in a football game?
He may have been the worst starting corner in the NFL over the last three years. Belichick had to play him so far off receivers to prevent Hobbs from getting beat that it limited what New England could do on defense.
By adding Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden, the Patriots drastically improved one of their weakest positions from a season ago.
Both players are better at pressing receivers at the line than Hobbs is, and that will allow the Patriots to play more aggressively on defense and send more blitzes.
Some may point out that Bodden had a down season in Detroit last year, and that’s a valid argument.
However, I was talking to a reporter I know in Detroit, and he said that entire team just went into a funk and guys weren't playing with any confidence midway through last season.
When I saw Bodden in Cleveland, I thought he was a really good corner. I remember when the Lions traded for him, I loved the move. When a team goes 0-16, sometimes it’s a bad year for everyone involved.
My guess is Belichick thought this exact same thing, and now he's getting Bodden at a great price based on how he views him as a player.
Don’t forget, in 2007, Bodden picked off six passes and totaled 88 tackles for the Browns. This could end up being one of the best free agent signings by year's end.
So when I look at this division, I see the Patriots' competition as being much improved heading into the season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that New England won 11 games in 2008 without Brady, and I think they are much improved as well.
When it comes down to it, the Patriots do things the right way. People can hate them all they want, but as a football fan, how can you not respect the way Belichick and Co. put together a team?
In contrast, look at what the Cowboys are doing in Dallas. Another year of Wade Phillips? That’s your answer? Good luck with that.
That's what happens when things are done wrong at the top. It doesn't matter who the Cowboys sign or if they release T.O. As long as Jerry Jones is making personnel decisions, that team won't win anything. Case closed.
You may not like Belichick, but everything he does professionally is almost always right. The way he runs his team is the right way; that's why the Patriots compete every single year.
And if there was any question if he could win without Tom Brady, last season erased any doubt.
So, just when you thought the AFC East was improving, at the end of the day, it's the same old story. The road to the division title goes through Belichick and the Patriots.
I imagine that will continue to be the case every year as long as Belichick calls New England home.