After finally ending the Patriots’ Dynasty, are the Bills on the precipice of beginning one of their own, or will a reloaded New England regain their perch atop the AFC East, or will the budding Dolphins have anything to say about it all???
With the return of the National Football League only a few weeks away, we begin our tour around the league with the AFC East, who for the first time in over a decade see someone other than the New England Patriots as the reigning division champions. That’s right, folks, the Buffalo Bills kicked in the door and removed the Pats from their iron throne, and now stand poised to begin a new dynasty of their own. However, Bill Belichick & Co have reloaded in an attempt to regain their standing within not just the East, but the NFL as a whole following a flurry of moves in Free Agency and some inspired selections in the Draft. With that said, one of Belichick’s acolytes has been doing some heavy lifting down in Miami, where Brian Flores hopes to see further progress in Year Three of the Dolphins’ rebuilding project. And speaking of rebuilding, the Jets are at it again with a new Head Coach (Robert Saleh) and Franchise Quarterback (Zack Wilson). So with that said, who will come out on top in the power struggle between the Bills and Patriots? How will the Dolphins factor into the matter, and what progress can we expect from Gang Green? Let’s take a deeper dive into what is shaping up to be one of the more competitive campaigns within a division that has rarely seen them over the past few decades…
The Favorite: Buffalo Bills
2020 proved to be a watershed year for the Bills, who saw the fruits of their hard labor pay off in a major way as they captured their first AFC East crown since 1995. The brain trust of (Head Coach) Sean McDermott and (General Manager) Brandon Beane has done a tremendous job of rebuilding this once downtrodden franchise into what looks to be a perennial power within the AFC, and the most refreshing thing about it all is that they did it the old-fashioned way via drafting and developing their talent. The greatest example of this is none other than (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Josh Allen, who has improved by leaps and bounds in each of his three years in the league, culminating in an MVP-caliber campaign highlighted by 4,544 passing yards and forty-five total touchdowns. The franchise was so enamored with the 25-year old that they inked him to a mammoth six-year, $258 million contract extension, including $150 million guaranteed. Simply put, that’s a MAJOR investment. The acquisition of (All-Pro Receiver) Stefon Diggs facilitated this explosion, with the 27-year old leading the NFL in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535), as Buffalo rode this dynamic duo all the way to the AFC Championship Game, where they fell short against the Kansas City Chiefs. Now with expectations greater than ever the question is whether or not McDermott’s charges can continue to progress and become legitimate Super Bowl contenders. For that to happen though, they’ll need to strike a better balance offensively, where they were far too-reliant on Allen’s considerable talents to carry them. Despite ranking second in the league in both scoring (31.3) and total yards (406.8), they only mustered 107.7 rushing yards per game (20th Overall), with Allen accounting for 421 yards on the ground. With that said, Buffalo managed to retain (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll, while also adding (Tailback) Matt Breida and (Veteran Wideout) Emmanuel Sanders, so expect more fireworks on this side of the ball as they aim for greater glory; namely the Lombardi Trophy that has eluded them throughout their franchise’s history.
The Contender: New England Patriots
Meanwhile, after reigning atop the AFC East for the better part of two decades the Patriots find themselves in an unfamiliar position: looking up. Indeed, the departure of a certain Hall of Fame Quarterback signaled the end of an outrageously successful era in Foxborough, as New England slumped to a 7-9 third-place finish, their worst within the division since 2000. For those who may not remember, that was the first year of the Bill Belichick administration, with the venerable mastermind looking to reload following an unfortunate campaign that was mired by defections, injuries, and the effects of COVID-19. Needless to say, he’s looking to put 2020 squarely behind him, and you would be hard-pressed to find another team that was more active in the Offseason; the Pats added a bevy of talent to replenish their arsenal, including the likes of (Tight End) Hunter Henry, (Edge-Rusher) Matthew Judon, (Cornerback) Jalen Mills, and (Receiver) Nelson Agholor, while welcoming back the likes of (Tackle) Trent Brown alongside (Linebackers) Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower, with the latter missing all of last season as a COVID-19 opt-out. With that said, all eyes will be at Quarterback where (former MVP) Cam Newton looks to build upon his lukewarm first impression with the franchise, while also fending off the (inevitable) ascension of (First Round Pick) Mac Jones. The first Quarterback to be drafted by Belichick in the First Round since the turn of the century, Jones was selected fifteenth overall following his watershed performance for National Champion Alabama, with every intention of becoming their next Franchise Quarterback. In the meantime, Newton enters the campaign as the starter though he must improve upon a season in which he threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8), though a full offseason with the coaching staff and his teammates coupled with a (hopefully) COVID-free run of health should provide him with an opportunity to prove that he can still perform at a high level. His growth within the Offense will dictate whether or not the Patriots offer a proper challenge to the Bills, otherwise the reins will be handed over to Jones and the next era of football in Foxborough will truly begin.
The Wild Card: Miami Dolphins
Though many forget, the Bills weren’t the only team within the AFC East to finish ahead of the Patriots, for the Dolphins put together a 10-6 finish, their best since 2016 and only their second such campaign in the last twelve years. Indeed, Miami has come a long way under (Head Coach) Brian Flores, who enters his third season with the franchise having purged the roster of those who didn’t fit his vision for a franchise that for all intents and purposes is developing into New England South. Though they were far from overwhelming on either side of the football, the ‘Fins were the most opportunistic outfit in the NFL last season, forcing a league-best twenty-nine turnovers. However, the transition to (2020 No. 5 Overall Pick) Tua Tagovailoa is now officially in full swing with his (veteran predecessor) Ryan Fitzpatrick hitting the road once again in Free Agency. Coming off major knee and hip surgeries in college, Tagovailoa’s rookie campaign was tepid at best, but the hope is that with the starting job firmly within his grasp and a full offseason with his teammates and the coaching staff that he will indeed take the requisite steps towards becoming the franchise passer that Miami has long sought for twenty years now. In order to further his development, the Dolphins drafted his former Crimson Tide teammate, (Receiver) Jaylen Waddle with the first of their two First Round Picks, while also adding speedster, Will Fuller Jr. to a growing Receiving Corps. Furthermore, Flores can expect the Defense to keep making plays after convincing disgruntled Cornerback, Xavien Howard, to remain with the team after the All-Pro demanded a new contract following a year in which he led the league with TEN interceptions. After developing a hard-nosed identity that reflects that of their Head Coach and adding further reinforcements at the skill positions, Miami remains on the right track towards success, but don’t be surprised if they end up taking a slight step backwards as their young Quarterback gets further acclimated to his role and the competition within the division grows stronger.
The Rest: New York Jets
And then there are the Jets, who once again find themselves starting over in a division that now has three different teams on the up and up. Even by their standards, 2020 was a dumpster fire for Gang Green, who cratered to a 2-14 finish, that somehow wasn’t good enough to earn them the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. As expected, the franchise parted ways with the much maligned Adam Gase, eventually hiring former San Francisco 49ers Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, who becomes the first Muslim Head Coach in NFL History. Make no mistake, the 42-year old has A LOT of work to do in New York, but his energy and personality are infectious to say the least, and the hope is that he will manage to build an atmosphere comparable to that of his previous stays with the Niners and Seattle Seahawks. The biggest task is rebuilding an Offense that was nothing short of the worst in the NFL last season, ranking dead-last in both points (15.2) and total yards (299.9). Of course, the most significant change comes at Quarterback where (former No. 3 Overall Pick) Sam Darnold has been traded away to the Carolina Panthers in lieu of their selection of Zack Wilson, second overall. Wilson’s arm strength, mobility, and knack for making big plays off schedule makes him the ideal choice for an attack starting over with few weapons around him. (General Manger) Joe Douglas acquitted himself rather well during the Draft, in which he also strengthened the Offensive Line with (Tackle) Alijah Vera-Tucker, and added some sorely-needed weapons in the form of (Receiver) Elijah Moore and (versatile Tailback) Michael Carter, while also attracting (former Titans Wideout) Corey Davis in Free Agency. With that said, this remains a team that is starved for speed and athleticism on both sides of the football, and though a change in atmosphere will absolutely do them good, it’s hard to imagine New York being able to compete with the better teams in the league, let alone those they’ll be in direct competition with. While progress is to be expected from the Jets in 2021, they’re still at least two years away from resembling the outfit that the fan base has been clamoring for.