The Division’s Backstory: Bills challenge Patriots
The 2020 season marked a massive shift in the game of professional football, it coincided with the world facing its first pandemic since nearly a century ago. Possibly a smaller microcosm of the larger issues facing the world, the AFC East division faced a changing of the guard as the dynasty in the cradle of our nation was blown away like that Kansas song, simply Dust In the Wind.
New England and their California-golden boy Tom Brady won 17 division titles in the 22 seasons since the turn of the millennium. Amassing all of those titles and 6 total Super Bowl victories in 9 appearances during that same span, and to make it even better they only missed the playoffs once in their two-decade run.
Prior to their dominance for the better part of the last 25 years, New England had only won the division once: in 1986. The 1990s saw Buffalo make four-straight appearances in the big game. Each attempt ended up being more painful than the last, as they could not pull out a single Lombardi. The Big Tuna, Canadian folk-hero slash NASCAR enthusiast Mark Rypien, and Texas oil billionaires are sadly to blame.
As 2020 came about and the world was scrambling to buy toilet paper and bathe in a tub full of Lysol and Germ-X, the football world was already prepared for Tom Brady no longer being a New England Patriot. The Sunshine State beckoned and the three-time NFL MVP and six-time Super Bowl champion would end up playing more football in Tampa Bay.
This exodus of a larger-than-life figure in football from what became one of the most storied, recognized, and valued franchises in all of the professional sports would prove to be the necessary open door for a new team to begin their own run.
Knocking at that door was Buffalo, ready to erase past memories of Scott Norwood or Thurman Thomas’s lost helmet. Buffalo added lots of talented pieces for strong-armed Josh Allen who has used that strength, along with deceptive mobility and stride, to power the Bills to three consecutive playoff appearances, and two straight AFC East titles and make an appearance in the Conference title match in 2020.
New England went 7-9 in the first year after Brady’s absence, finishing third place in the division, their lowest mark since the 2000 season. The next season Mac Jones showed a lot of poise and had the additional help of a balanced rushing attack. This emergence from a conservative offensive towards a more tactical approach paired well with a Belichick-lead defense and the Patriots finished 2nd in the AFC East at a respectable 10-7.
Their improvement and key victories over other AFC squads earned them a playoff spot in 2021. In a sick and mostly enjoyable sense of irony, they were steamrolled by the Bills, and quite possibly “molly whopped.”
To give some background on the recent history of the other two squads in this conference, both the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have shown flashes of great potential, but a great deal of turnover in organizational leadership, as well as football operations.
The Jets made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010, but have only won ten or more games in one season since, and have failed to make the playoffs since then. Winning ten games or more only one time in the years since.
The Phins have floundered as well in recent memory, since 2000, they have only made three playoff appearances, and zero victories in each hopeless try. A winning record the past two seasons under the now-fired coach Brian Flores is the lone bright spot in the past score of mediocrity. If I am able to be completely forthright here, the Jets and the Dolphins have been two of the worst franchises in the league since the beginning of this millennium, but their stock is rising.
AFC East: Setting the Stage
After the conclusion of the 2021 season, the league began its annual spring cleaning. Coaches were fired and rehired in different positions across the league and in the NCAA, owners sold rights and general managers changed name tags. Players have been spreading out across the map to different cities and beginning the process of carving their names into the halls of Canton forever with new teams. College prospects diligently work to improve their intangibles in hopes of being selected by one of the 32 teams in the NFL Draft.
It is a time for reflection and growth. Sort of like that 24-hour period between December 31st and January 2nd where you promise to become a better person and stop smoking, lose weight, quit gambling, or something else your mind has contrived that often never gets accomplished. However, in the NFL, you can win championships with how you improve in the offseason.
Look at this year’s champs. Los Angeles nabbed a league-favorite quarterback in Matt Stafford to help their offense click together with all of its pretty pieces. They improved on defense, and still drafted quality depth, despite trading several picks to acquire certain players. Yet, even they weren’t safe from some important players being poached by other contenders. The edge is set along the banks of the Niagara River, but more on that later.
The free-for-all of player movement in March and April is huge for teams looking to get an edge on next year’s opponents. Some teams play checkers, but there are those who are playing chess. So here is a bird’s-eye-view of each team’s finish last season, their offseason improvements, draft needs, and how the division could play out this upcoming fall.
Final Predictions for the AFC East in 2022
4th Place – New York Jets (5-12)
Robert Saleh manned the helm in the Big Apple (really just Northeast New Jersey) for his first season as an NFL head coach and his Jets improved their 2-14 record from the previous year…by two wins. The Jets finished 4th in the division for the fifth time in the last six years at 4-13 and finished dead last in team defense.
The Jets nabbed C.J. Uzomah in free agency as a quality dual-role tight-end who can block and catch passes behind linebackers. Guard play along the offensive line was of great cause for concern for all of those who associate themselves with Jets football. Even the hot-dog stand guy in the nosebleeds could see that.
2021 Pro Bowler Laken Tomlinson was tendered and should be able to shore up the play along with the offensive interior. QBs Joe Flacco and Mike White were both given generous deals to likely play backup roles, but one could argue this is decent insurance with starter Zach Wilson still fighting an uphill battle to emerge as a top passer and game-runner in this league.
New York also re-signed special teams ace Braxton Berrios to another contract and the occasionally explosive Tevin Coleman was also retained, and hope to produce more than they did last year. Overall, New York made some quality additions to their offense but still does not have the X-Factor players in skill positions to compete each week for 17 games.
The Jets’ secondary was a bright spot in previous years but has been downright atrocious in the past few seasons. New York signed D.J. Reed to help the Jets’ defensive backs be more aggressive against the run where they were terrible last year. Reed also has some noteworthy coverage skills as he comes to the Jets via Seattle. Pro Football Focus listed Reed as one of the top ten cornerbacks in the NFL last season, his production despite his height of 5’9” should be an instant improvement for the Jets.
The Jets have to improve their defense if they hope to win more games. Their defense was what lead them to the doorstep of the Super Bowl in 2009 and 2010. A butt fumble, Todd Bowles’ meltdown, and the Adam Gase disaster later the Jets have been in the bottom half of teams in the league in terms of points given up per game in ten seasons since 2011.
This upcoming draft will prove to be a cornerstone of Robert Saleh’s tenure in New York. Whether that cornerstone holds fast or crumbles is the beauty of the draft’s nature. The Jets need someone that Wilson can consistently throw to, they desperately need pass rushers along the defensive line as well as a nose tackle who can plug up holes. Taking an athletic linebacker with promise and a running back who can run through tackles would benefit Gang Green Nation.
To put it bluntly, at this point there is not a single position group on the Jets roster that can stack up favorably against another group across all the teams in the league. If the Jets can find creative ways to churn out first downs on the ground while Wilson has solid receivers to throw to, the Jets can improve on offense. Defensively, massive improvements must be made in the scheme and to personnel. Until then, the Jets will be consistent cellar-dwellers.
3rd Place – New England Patriots (9-8)
In Foxborough, the six silver Lombardi’s truly have not lost any of their shine, though it may be quite a while before there are more to be polished. Belichick will have his team defensively ready week in and week out as he has every game in his career as the head ball coach in New England.
The Patriots have been accustomed to much more gaudy offensive statistics than they have seen since Mac Jones’s arrival, but the Alabama quarterback is now coming into his second year after having played consistently above average in his rookie campaign. He tossed for 22 scores and over 3,800 yards. The growth of this team lies largely on his shoulders.
In terms of roster additions, the Patriots have mostly focused on resigning their key players. The loss of J.C. Jackson in the secondary was a huge blow to the Patriots who tried to make up for the loss by bringing back Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler and signing Terrance Mitchell from Houston. Both players had down years in their last seasons and will be no form of replacement for the impact Jackson made on opposing offenses.
Former Miami WR Devante Parker and previous New York Giant Jabrill Peppers were signed to the team in early April. Parker provides solid production when healthy as a go-to receiver, and Peppers is a very athletic defensive back who knows what to do with the ball in his hands as he has experience returning punts and kicks. Both are solid additions, but not game-breaking.
The team did re-sign RB James White, WR Matthew Slater, and DB Devin McCourty. All of these players bring great veteran leadership to key position groups but have all played their best years in the NFL prior to this point.
Trent Brown was also re-signed which will help Mac Jones feel more comfortable. If Brown can stay healthy this season he should be able to make things work from the right tackle spot and bring a calming presence to the rest of the offensive line.
The strength of this Patriots team is usually its defense, but with no real threats in the secondary anymore and a lack of elite pass-rushing, the rushing attack on the offensive side of the ball has taken center stage. Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris both provided solid production on the ground for the Patriots last year as an effective 1-2 punch of power and speed. With both returning New England fans should be prepared to see this running game be their offensive bread and butter.
This is not only the case because of their skill, but the absence of reliable playmaking pass catchers. A major draft need for New England in this upcoming selection process. Although with Shaq Mason and Ted Karras now gone from the offensive line, I would look for Robert Kraft and company to make a bid for interior offensive linemen in the first couple rounds of this upcoming draft. Secondly, a defensive player is necessary for the defense to play up to the level that Belichick has set for a Patriots defense. Likely a linebacker or a defensive back.
New England has some great tools to work with and a legendary coach pulling all the strings. It is really hard to count them totally out of playoff contention but it looks as if their defensive personnel will be filled with gaping holes that may prove too much for a currently unbalanced offense to overcome. Where are Randy Moss and Tedy Bruschi when you need them?
2nd Place – Miami Dolphins (10-7)
One could make an argument that Miami had one of the best offseasons of any team up to this point. They locked down necessary contracts for their defensive core and they added protection for Tua Tagovailoa going into a critical third season for him. He will still have Waddle and Gesicki to throw to, as well as some more weapons that could make a huge splash in South Beach.
After the dismissal of Brian Flores after the season’s end, Miami replaced him with a bright, young, offensive guru in Mike McDaniel. That label for a coach can seem to be a cliche, but you can’t fake the culture that the former 49ers offensive coordinator has already instilled in Miami.
Miami re-signed their top pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah who has recorded 18 sacks in the last two seasons. They also kept Elandon Roberts in place, the Port Arthur, TX native notched a career-high 83 tackles last season and had one interception that he took back a coincidental 83 yards for a score. Nik Needham was tendered as a restricted free agent, he held passers to a very admirable sub-75.0 passer rating last fall.
Where the Dolphins shined was their construction of a formidable tornado of an offense. Miami traded a boat-load of draft picks to Kansas City and their deal with the Chiefs landed them one of the best playmakers in league history. Tyreek Hill joined Miami and immediately defined the offensive archetype for Mike McDaniels new groove. Totally incendiary speed.
McDaniel brought some players and staff with him to Miami. Raheem Mostert will get a chance to get RB1 reps after coming off of injury. If he can produce as he did in 2019 when he posted over 900 total yards on offense, the Dolphins will have a much-improved rushing attack.
That running game will also be aided by Alec Ingold who joins the team after three years with the Raiders where he posted a very respectable stat line as a receiving fullback. Miami took care of their skill positions by placing the franchise tag on team-leading tight end Mike Geisicki and signing a slot pass-catcher from Dallas in Cedric Wilson who caught 45 passes and six scores last year.
The firepower looked to be primed and ready to blow. However, protection for the developing Tagovailoa was a must-handle issue. Enter three-time Pro Bowler, Terron Armstead, and guard Connor Williams. Armstead is considered by many to be one of the best at his position, he blocked for Drew Brees for years and will certainly make things easier for Tua when he is in the pocket.
Williams is an athletic freak for an interior lineman and has been one of the most productive guards in the NFL the last two seasons. In Dallas, Williams played in every game the last two seasons and was top 10 for his position as a pass blocker and run blocker. If these two veterans can help move people around and protect Tagovailoa on pass plays Miami’s offense might carve teams to pieces.
Miami has key positions secure for this season. Their secondary is one of the deepest in the league, and their skill positions are brimming with talent. I would look for Miami to still try and find linemen to develop for their future, although this has been a futile task for the Dolphins in the last few draft cycles. Depth at the interior defensive line and linebacker would also be beneficial for Miami, as their front seven is talented, but are limited personnel-wise.
With an already stingy defense that has improved tremendously the past two years and a new up-tempo offense loaded with speed and precision, The Dolphins have all the tools to make a playoff appearance if the cards fall just right. I mean those cards have to be exact, we are talking about one of those wild scenarios where there are ties.
The entire AFC is now loaded with premiere young quarterbacks who have led teams to the playoffs recently and seen success. The path to the playoffs will be tough for Miami and will likely come down to just how efficient Tua Tagovailoa can be. Wild Card spots will be even harder to come by if you don’t have double-digit wins, but even then, it may not be enough.
1st Place – Buffalo Bills (11-6)
Even after the smoke clears from the upcoming draft, and we take into account all the offseason moves from Buffalo, New York, New England, and Miami…the road to the conference title will run through Buffalo. There is more to a team’s success than their past, more than their future and their potential.
Buffalo has an identity that is built in the present. Their fans leap through tables from preposterous tailgate heights, they save gallons of milk in their Ford Pintos from playoff games in the late 1980s.
Buffalo is a unique football town that is invulnerable to pain. Their passion for what has historically been an average franchise is unmatched and this team has been one of the most exciting for their fans in a long time. They finally have a team that is balanced on both sides of the ball and carries a chip on their shoulder, but this year MUST be the season to prove that their confidence has value. A division title, can’t be enough.
Josh Allen has ridiculous arm talent that the Bills used to stretch the field and outmatch their opponents. When they aren’t throwing over the top of them, they have a rushing attack that overpowers league defenses. Allen has accounted for 2,300 rushing yards in his four seasons as well as 31 rushing touchdowns. He is an animal and is currently the most talented, polished quarterback in the division.
The Bills have made three straight playoff appearances and have won the division in 2021 and 2020. The team is talented across the board and they added even more to the roster. Sean McDermott is in his sixth year as the head coach in Buffalo and is the second-most tenured coach in the division. He has gone 49-32 in that timespan and has helped Buffalo become a prime time place for the league’s best players to take their talents.
The Bills re-signed Isaiah McKenzie who pairs well with Stefon Diggs as two speedy leading receivers. Buffalo moved on from Veteran Cole Beasley which leaves their pass-catching roles in a scarce supply of proven production. Jamison Crowder has seen a decline in production with division rival New York over his last three seasons but has shown flashes of solid receiving chops that could certainly benefit Josh Allen.
Allen had a great deal of success when targeting Dawson Knox in 2021 and they grabbed a veteran to pair with him in this free agency cycle; former Buccaneer O.J. Howard. With two great pass-catching tight ends on the field for Buffalo, defenses will have difficulty stacking just one side of the field.
Defensively, Buffalo will get an immediate boost in intimidation and force on the edge with the arrival of future Hall of Famer Von Miller, fresh off his second Super Bowl victory. Miller will provide a great pass-rushing aspect to Buffalo that will allow other players to shine as they will be in the more one-on-one situations due to Miller requiring more than one body to stop him consistently.
Signing Miller is arguably the most significant free-agent signing in the organization’s history. He has 115.5 career sacks and has been one of the more dominant defensive players of this era. Buffalo already has a talented secondary with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who have proven to be one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. Tre’Davious White has shown his prowess as a lockdown corner in his time in Buffalo.
The box players for Buffalo will likely need to improve this season if Buffalo wants to make a run for a Super Bowl. The Bills brought back Shaq Lawson who had multiple promising years in Buffalo from 2016 to 2019 before he was shopped around to both Miami and the Jets. Lawson will bring solid depth to the defensive front in Buffalo and should be able to improve their run defense.
In the draft process, adding more wide receivers and running backs would help the offensive production in the long run. And as is the theme with his linebacker-weak division the Bills will need to address that position before the season begins.
If Buffalo can find more skilled players that Allen can get the ball to, I trust a productive and stalwart Bills defense to put them back in the playoff picture and to take the division again. They are the big dogs on the porch of the AFC East and it will take a very disciplined squad to get the best of them in divisional play.
The Bills have the cultural advantage, they have a balanced team with talent and experience in important positions. The offense might stutter, but Allen’s improvability will likely prevail for them in the clutch for the 2022 season.
The Last Word:
The 2022 NFL Draft begins at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 28th. That night and the following weekend will be monumental for the teams in this division, as they are for every team every year. A few of these AFC East teams look to be just a few pieces away from Super Bowl titles, while others seem to be stuck in an endless cyclical monotony of hopelessness and desperation.
This is the NFL things can change with the toss of a coin, the call of a play-action pass on an aggressive defense, a broken leg, or a busted draft pick.
The AFC East teams this year will be playing both the AFC and NFC North divisions, which have both had down years in 2021 only sending their division champion to the playoffs. It should make for some very exciting matchups from start to finish. The Bills, Dolphins, Jets, and Patriots will also face one team from the NFC West for their 17th game.
I am no fortune teller despite my many attempts, but I do know that each of these teams did improve at least minimally this spring. While it may not be as competitive as its West conference counterparts in Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, the AFC East will still have plenty of exciting games to see who will win the crown.