Complete AFC East Preview
Here is a look at what you can expect from the Pats, Bills, Dolphins and Jets this season…
New England Patriots
This offseason seemed to have the most drama, off-the-field madness and media — social, print, television, blog, whatever — frenzy of any before it. Or was if the Deflategate one? Or the Spygate one? Or the “Patriots are going to go 19-0” one? Really, the amount of off-the-field friction — perceived, real, all of the above — is basically this organization’s normal by now. So for as much panic as resides in New England over the Super Bowl loss and the breakdown in chemistry, the Patriots still suffered just a one-score loss to the Eagles because the defense simply couldn’t make a stop.
If any of the deficiencies on that side of the ball can be cleaned up, this should again be one of the best teams in the AFC and a Super Bowl contender. The division appears to have an emerging threat in Buffalo, which made the playoffs last year, but so did the Dolphins the prior year before fizzling out. There isn’t a real challenger until someone else wins the division, and that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade.
So we should see another strong season from the Patriots, provided Brady stays healthy. Between the lines, coach Bill Belichick and his staff still have enough talent on hand to continue their dynasty and earn the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl championship.
Most of the contenders seem to be emanating from the South, as the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans all have good young cores with the type of talent to make things interesting. The Steelers, Chiefs and Chargers should also be threats, and if Baltimore can solve its issues on offense, they’re in that mix, too.
So, of course, the Patriots aren’t a slam dunk to make it back to the AFC Championship Game, but do you really want to put your money down that they won’t? Didn’t think so.
While making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 was cause for dancing in the streets in Western New York, Bills fans are bracing for a step back. Even though former Bills QB Tyrod Taylor had his limitations, he was experienced, and he had a track record (22-20) of moderate success. If AJ McCarron can lend some stability at the quarterback position until Josh Allen is ready, and if Buffalo’s defense can improve at stopping the run, the Bills could make a push for a return to the postseason. But they still play in the AFC East where the Patriots reign, and their schedule (five of the first seven games are on the road) won’t make a fast start very easy.
Coach Adam Gase has spent two years clearing out players he didn’t feel fit with his program. Stephen Ross might start thinking about some housecleaning himself if his team remains perennially stuck in the NFL’s middle class (or worse) for the 11th straight year under his ownership. Gase, though, has gotten what he wanted — a collection of “his guys” on the roster and coaching staff, captained by a quarterback he trusts and the expectation that RB Frank Gore, G Josh Sitton and WR Danny Amendola will provide leadership that was sorely needed.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to really add a lot of veteran players, and it was probably the right time for us because we’ve got those guys that are in their second and third year,” Gase says. “Having some guys that can make a positive impact and show the right way to do things, that’s really what we needed.” So is recapturing the magic of Gase’s first Dolphins season with another playoff appearance.
New York Jets
What would represent adequate progress for this Jets team as the rebuilding process continues? Would six wins be enough for coach Todd Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan to stick around? That is debatable. More important than wins, however, could be the development of Sam Darnold at quarterback. He doesn’t have to be the Week 1 starter. But he has to demonstrate some growth in whatever action he gets. And maybe he doesn’t get the starting job until just after midseason, like Jared Goff with the Rams in 2016. There would be nothing wrong with that, as long as he looks like he belongs by the end of the season. And if he belongs, then it’s safe to say that his coach will be back for a fifth season.