The New England Patriots didn't even have to leave the comfort of their own home to get a reminder of why they are still in the driver's seat in the AFC East.
With a Week 4 bye, the Patriots watched as the New York Jets smacked the Miami Dolphins out of the Joe Philbin era in a 27-14 beatdown at Wembley Stadium, and watched as the Buffalo Bills committed one penalty after another on their way to a 24-10 defeat to the New York Giants.
The Patriots have stability at quarterback and head coach. That's more than any of the other three teams can say. Their run of consistency at those spots is unmatched in the NFL right now, and according to Field Yates of ESPN, the rest of the AFC East has spent the past 15 years trying to catch up:
Most of the time, these teams will get partway there, but not all the way.
The Dolphins think they've found their quarterback, but are once again searching for answers at head coach after Philbin was handed his walking papers Monday.
To be sure, the Patriots have benefited from the constant changes among the coaching staffs of their competitors, and quarterback Tom Brady wasn't afraid to admit it on WEEI's The Dennis and Callahan Show:
I know the easy thing in sports now is to change coaches and then the whole scheme of players change, but I think that's a good thing for the Patriots when that happens for other teams, truthfully. When teams change their coach, I think that's an advantage for us. They've got to rebuild, and we've got to continue to make improvements on the things we need to improve on. I feel like we always start at a better place than these other teams because they've got so much ground to make up.
Now, the Dolphins will be starting all over again, again.
That's after investing hundreds of millions in big-name free-agents over the past few years, hoping that one or two high-priced players can put the team over the .500 hump and into the postseason. Compare that to the Patriots' strategy, which focuses on adding supplemental pieces through free agency and building the core of the roster through the draft, and there's a clear dichotomy.
|AFC East quarterbacks through 4 games|
|Player||T. Brady||R. Tannehill||R. Fitzpatrick||T. Taylor|
Of course, it's always easier when the quarterback position is figured out, but the Dolphins thought they had their answer in Ryan Tannehill. They still might, but he is playing on par with his rookie season right now and is set for the lowest passer rating and completion percentage of his four-year career as a starter. That's despite a revamped cast of wide receivers and years of building a formidable offensive line.
The Jets certainly have long-term questions at quarterback, but their short-term fix—Ryan Fitzpatrick—has played well enough to keep the team on track. He may not ever be the reason the Jets win, but as long as he continues to not be the reason they lose, the Jets have the look of a surprise playoff contender with a dominant running game and a stifling defense.
With a soft four-game stretch after their Week 5 bye, the Jets could very well be 5-3 or even 6-2 at the halfway point, which would put them firmly in the playoff discussion and probably not too far off of the Patriots' pace atop the division. That being said, while the team has found a good head coach in Todd Bowles, there are still unanswered questions about the long-term viability of Fitzpatrick at quarterback.
The Bills may have found their QB-HC combination in Tyrod Taylor and Rex Ryan, but that team continues to take on the identity of its coach, which is a similar identity to the Jets' identity from 2009-2014. The Bills are a respectable 2-2 through four games, but they could be better if they would step off the emotional roller coaster of the season for just a minute.
The Bills had an emotional win in Week 1 over the Indianapolis Colts, 27-14. They followed up with a week of bold smack talk, but fell short against the New England Patriots, 40-32. With their backs against the wall, the Bills responded by laying the smackdown on the Dolphins, 41-14. Another emotional win was followed by another frustrating loss as the Bills shot themselves in the foot time after time with a total of 17 penalties.
|Patriots penalties per game (regular season)|
|Year||Penalties per game||NFL rank|
The lack of discipline has been on display all too regularly with the Bills this year, and this team has been flagged an unmatched 11.75 times per game this season, according to NFLPenalties.com.
At least Ryan's players are playing with passion. That's more than can be said about the Dolphins, yet Miami is still among the NFL's most penalized teams with 8.5 per game and has come out flat each week to be outscored a combined 37-3 in the first quarter.
Not only do the Dolphins lack passion, but they seem to have given up on their coaching, as evidenced by last week's report, per Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, that the Dolphins defense held a closed-door meeting with defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle to air grievances about the scheme and personnel.
If this type of thing has happened at Gillette Stadium, it's never been reported. That's because Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is meticulous about weeding out players who don't buy in or who don't eat, sleep, breathe and live football.
Every year presents the same question: "Can anyone compete with the Patriots in the AFC East?" Every year, we get the same answer: "No." The only exception was when Brady missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL.
If the 2015 season is going to be any different, it looks like it's up to the Jets. Their best hope is continued game managerial-like play from Fitzpatrick. Over the course of his career, though, Fitzpatrick hasn't been able to sustain that level of play. Since 2010, Fitzpatrick has posted two or more touchdowns and one or fewer interceptions just five times, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Brady has done the same thing 10 times since 2010, and is on a three-game streak right now. The Jets could have a chance to put a stop to that streak in Week 6 in Foxborough.
That contest could prove, one way or the other, whether the Patriots will have any real competition in the division in 2015.