That is the streak of AFC East titles the New England Patriots currently hold coming into the 2020 season. They are the only the second team in the four major U.S. sports to win consecutive double-digit division titles (1991-2005 Atlanta Braves). However, the streak looks to be in jeopardy as the greatest quarterback of all-time, Tom Brady, departed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason, and the team looks as weak as ever in the 20+ years of Bill Belichick in charge. With the AFC East up for grabs in the 2020 NFL season, here is a preview of the four teams in the division in order of the place I project them to finish,
- Buffalo Bills (2019 record: 10-6)
2019 was the most successful season the Bills had in 20 years. They won 10 games for the first time since 1999 and reached the playoffs for the second time in three years. They were anchored by a young and solid defense led by all-pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, ranking third in total defense and pass defense. On offense, youth led the way as second-year quarterback Josh Allen showed progress from his rough rookie by throwing for 3,089 yards and 20 touchdowns while rushing for 510 yards. Devin Singletary has provided a future core starter at running back as he rushed for 775 yards.
The Bills’ trip to the postseason ended in heartbreak as they blew a 16-0 lead to the Houston Texans and lost 22-19 in overtime. Despite this, the Bills’ future is among the brightest in the NFL and this offseason, the front office worked to build up the roster around their young quarterback.
The Bills traded their first-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings for deep-threat wide receiver Stefon Diggs, giving Josh Allen a legit number one target to throw to. While John Brown and Cole Beasley are dependable, Diggs is a proven star, adding more firepower to a Bills offense needing to elevate their performances to take the load off the defense. Adding veteran cornerback Josh Norman provides depth to an already elite secondary and defensive unit.
With Brady, who posted an astounding 32-3 record against the Bills, out of the AFC East, the Bills are next in line to control this division. Bills Mafia will have more than just a wild card berth to celebrate this season as they will win their first AFC East title since 1995.
2. Miami Dolphins (2019 record: 5-11)
The second-fourth place teams in this division are all teams I expect to finish in the five-win category. None of them will make the playoffs and the order of their respective finishes are interchangeable. For second place in this division, I give the edge to the Miami Dolphins due to their easier schedule and improved roster.
Last year, the Dolphins were considered to have had one of the least talented rosters ever and were predicted by many to go 0-16. Their first seven games made these predictions possible as they lost all seven, which included losing their first two games by a combined 92 points. However, new head coach Brian Flores would not let the Dolphins quit and guided a late-season turnaround, leading Miami to a 5-4 record over their last nine games. This stretch included their season-finale win at New England 27-24, their first win at Foxborough since 2008. It knocked the Patriots out of the first-round bye position, allowing the Kansas City Chiefs to take the two seed instead.
The Dolphins have spent the previous few seasons unloading talent. This offseason, they had the most money to spend in free agency along with three first-round draft picks. They signed many significant free agents including cornerback Byron Jones, running back Jordan Howard, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, defensive end Shaq Lawson and more. In the draft, they added their potential quarterback of the future in Alabama product Tua Tagovailoa, along with USC tackle Austin Jackson and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene from Auburn.
Flores is building a great culture in Miami not seen since the days of Don Shula in the early 1990s, highlighted by the Dolphins’ overachieving in 2019. Their roster has greatly improved but they are still a year or two away from competing for the playoffs, especially with the inconsistent Ryan Fitzpatrick starting at QB as Tua is still recovering from his hip injury. Miami will make strides this season and will win games but are not ready for a wild card spot yet.
3. New England Patriots (2019 record: 12-4)
The Patriots’ dynasty is dead. The team has a new quarterback and a league-high nine players opted out of the season due to concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are no longer the force they have been the last two decades, finally entering a season without Super Bowl expectations. Last season was the final year with the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, at the helm for the Patriots. They started off 10-1, relying on NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner in cornerback Stephon Gilmore to shut down opposing offenses, easing the load for the offense. However, this could not last as the competition picked up, forcing the weak Patriots’ receiving corp and struggling running game to pick up the slack. They could not and lost to the Dolphins in the season finale, forcing them to play on wild card weekend against the Tennessee Titans. The Patriots were shut out in the second half and lost 20-13.
Brady left to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ending a tenure that produced six Super Bowl championships for the team. The Patriots approached free agency and the draft with a similar philosophy, don’t make splashy moves and add depth across the roster. The one exception is the team signing Brady’s replacement in 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton. Newton has dealt with shoulder and foot injuries in the last couple of seasons of his tenure with the Carolina Panthers and signed with the Patriots on a one-year incentive-laden deal.
The Patriots had multiple key players opting out of the season including linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and tackle Marcus Cannon. The Patriots will struggle to fill the void these absences will leave and without significant offseason additions to upgrade the roster, the Patriots will struggle similarly to the end of last season. The offense lacks playmakers and the defense lost key players and leaders. The Patriots’ reign over the AFC East is over and I expect the Patriots to crash into mediocrity.
4. New York Jets (2019 record: 7-9)
The biggest reason the Jets sit below the Patriots and Dolphins is their inferior coaching. Adam Gase knows offense, yes, but he isn’t a players’ coach, which comes back to bite teams when times get tough. Last year, the Jets started the season terribly with a 1-7 record, which included a 33-0 loss to the Patriots and were the first team to lose to the Dolphins.
The second half was fun for Jets’ fans as quarterback Sam Darnold got into a rhythm with wide receiver Jamison Crowder. Safety Jamal Adams was wreaking havoc and the team went 6-2, finishing the season with a 7-9 record. This stretch did include the Jets beating some of the worst teams in the NFL such as the Dolphins, Washington and the Giants. However, they looked impressive in a shocking 34-3 beatdown of the 6-4 Raiders. What’s even more shocking is they lost 22-6 to the 0-11 Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13.
The priority this past offseason was to support Darnold with a better offensive line and give him more weapons to work with. They drafted Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round and added wide receivers Chris Hogan and Breshad Perriman in free agency. Defensively, they added several solid pieces including cornerback Pierre Desir, but they are overshadowed by the loss of Adams as he demanded a trade and was sent to the Seattle Seahawks in a blockbuster deal.
Without Adams, the defense lacks an enforcer, making the defense soft and potentially one of the league’s worst in 2020. The Jets have a brutal schedule like the rest of the division and without Adams and a proper coach, the Jets will find themselves in the basement of the AFC East.