New England Patriots' AFC East Reign Is Done—Who Will Take the Throne?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 2, 2020

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) celebrates after catching a pass for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

For the past two decades, the New England Patriots have been the big, bad bullies of the AFC East. The team's run of dominance is unprecedented in modern NFL history. Since the first Super Bowl win of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era in 2001, there have been all of two seasons in which New England didn't win the division. The Pats have been division champions every year since 2009—a record run of 11 straight.

It's been quite the Boston tea party—but it's over now.

With Brady in Tampa, the Patriots are beginning a new era. Thanks to the decampment of the future Hall of Fame quarterback, several key losses on the defensive side of the ball and a wide receiver corps that remains among the weakest in the league, New England in all likelihood will not win the AFC East this year.

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Even if you believe Belichick can keep the Jarrett Stidham-led Pats—who are short on offensive weapons and had linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins depart via free agency—in the mix, the team can't be looked at as the prohibitive favorite it's been in just about every other year of the 21st century.

The times, they are a-changing.

The Patriots aren't the only team in the division that underwent big changes in the offseason. As a matter of fact, there probably isn't a division in the league in which all four squads look so different than they did in 2019.

And one of those teams is about to step into a role that will feel very unfamiliar. Foreign, even.

That of front-runner.


The Long Shot

Let's get this out of the way: The front-runners are not the Miami Dolphins.

Not that long ago, the Dolphins looked like the front-runners for the title of NFL's worst team. They weren't shy about beginning a ground-up rebuild last year under new head coach Brian Flores. Players such as offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick were traded for draft picks. And the first half of the season was ugly—Miami was outscored 163-26 over the opening month and lost its first seven games.

The Dolphins, however, showed quite a bit more fight down the stretch. They were 4-4 in the second half and capped the surge with a Week 17 upset of the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, which cost New England a first-round playoff bye. Once the offseason started, Miami kicked its rebuild into overdrive.

They were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency, handing big contracts to Van Noy, cornerback Byron Jones and edge-rusher Shaq Lawson. Armed with three first-round draft picks, Miami added a potential franchise quarterback in Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, a tackle to protect him in USC's Austin Jackson and more depth for the secondary in Auburn's Noah Igbinoghene.

It's been quite the overhaul, and it could get the Dolphins into the mix for a playoff spot in this year's expanded postseason tournament.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

"They transformed this team in a division that for the first time in 15 years is truly in play," Brian Billick of NFL Network said, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. "They could be very much a playoff-caliber team."

Though the Dolphins look markedly better on paper, they still face big questions. With Tagovailoa rehabbing a dislocated hip, it's unknown when he could take the reins. The skill-position talent around whomever starts at quarterback is less than imposing. The offensive line was a bottom-five unit in both run blocking and pass protection in 2019, per Football Outsiders. And the defense ranked 30th in the league overall and dead-last with just 23 sacks.

The Dolphins may well be better, but they are still at least a year away from seriously contending.


The Dark Horse

Will the real New York Jets please stand up?

Like the Dolphins, the Jets were a roller-coaster in 2019. The beginning of their season was a nightmare. Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who signed a massive free-agent deal, suffered a groin injury in Week 1 and played just one game the rest of the season. Quarterback Sam Darnold missed a month with mononucleosis (no, really). At the halfway point, New York had one win.

The second half of the season was another story. The Jets rallied in November and December, peeling off six wins in eight games to finish 7-9. That offered at least some room for optimism about 2020, and the offseason has offered that much more.

The Jets focused their attention in both free agency and the draft on fixing an offensive line that allowed 52 sacks in 2019—fourth-most in the NFL. They signed tackle George Fant and center Connor McGovern and used the 11th overall pick on 6'7", 364-pound tackle Mekhi Becton of Louisville.

With that biggest of needs filled, pundits, including Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, have called this a playoffs-or-bust year for Gang Green. But head coach Adam Gase said he won't put that sort of specific expectation on the team.

Gail Burton/Associated Press

"I'm not really worried about what expectations should be," Gase said. "I know anything that we talk about in-house will stay in-house. We're focused on getting better in this offseason."

The Jets have indeed gotten better. But they still have sizable holes. Focusing so many resources on the offensive line meant other areas went unaddressed. New York ranked 23rd in the league in sacks last year, and the pass rush is no better. It added a wide receiver in the second round of the draft (Baylor's Denzel Mims) and signed Breshad Perriman in free agency, but Robby Anderson's departure dealt a blow to an already shaky corps.

The Jets aren't going to be an easy out, but 10 wins feels like their ceiling.

And for that to be good enough to win the AFC East, the front-runner will have to stumble.


The Front-Runner

Those front-runners are the Buffalo Bills—the same team that has been to the playoffs only twice in the 21st century.

Of course, those two postseason trips have come in the past three seasons—including last year's 10-win campaign and wild-card berth. Via the Buffalo News, Bills general manager Brandon Beane said Buffalo is ready to take the next step.

"Our fanbase is so fired up," Beane said on SportsCenter. "It's the best I've ever been around, the best I've seen. Everybody in the league knows how rabid the Bills Mafia is. That's our goal. We want to win this AFC East so we can host a home playoff game. We got in the playoffs last year, but we ran into a tough team in Houston."

Beane also pointed out that the Patriots are the defending champs—offseason losses or not.

"You guys are all playing right into Bill Belichick's hands," he said. "I can promise you in Orchard Park, we know that they are the champions, and until someone knocks them off, they're still the team to beat."

Well, this is the year the Bills will likely do just that.

Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

Buffalo might not have the gaudy array of firepower or reigning MVP quarterback that the Kansas City Chiefs or Baltimore Ravens have, but the Bills aren't that far off. Quarterback Josh Allen made strides as a passer last year and rushed for over 500 yards. The Bills ranked eighth in the league in rushing and added a talented young back in the draft in Utah's Zack Moss. Buffalo's trade for Pro Bowl wideout Stefon Diggs gave Allen the go-to receiver he has lacked.

Also, last year's third-ranked defense will return relatively intact—and in the one area it won't, the team may have actually gotten better. Edge-rusher Shaq Lawson bolted for Miami in free agency, but veteran Mario Addison is a more proven option, and the Bills added a player many considered a first-round prospect (defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa of Iowa) on Day 2 of the draft.

The Bills don't have any glaring weaknesses. Buffalo is easily the most balanced team in the AFC East—especially after the addition of Diggs juiced up the passing game. In fact, you can make a compelling argument that only the Chiefs and Ravens have better rosters in the AFC.

The division is the Bills' to lose in 2020.

And if that doesn't tell you how drastically things have changed in the AFC East, nothing will.