For as much as the NFL prides itself on parity, the AFC East has not exactly been a competitive division this millennium. The New England Patriots have won it nine out of the last 10 years, and looked poised to do so once again.
The Miami Dolphins — the last team to win the division not from New England — and their AFC East constituents may be looking up at the Patriots yet again this season, however, it doesn’t mean a trip to the postseason is out of the question.
Though they ended the 2013 regular season trending in opposite directions, 8-8 finishes by both Miami and the New York Jets showed that both teams may be on the cusp of returning to the playoffs and should be viewed as wild-card threats. The Buffalo Bills, however, finished with a 6-10 record for the third-consecutive season and have not cracked eight wins since 2004.
While New England should coast to a double-digit win total behind a dynamic Tom Brady-led offense, the rest of the division may have to rely on defense to keep them afloat as they wait for their young quarterbacks to develop.
New York’s Geno Smith and Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel both showed promise in their rookie seasons, but neither should be relied upon to lead a team at this point. Miami, meanwhile, spent the majority of their offseason trying to make life easier on third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill by rebuilding nearly their entire offensive line through the draft and free agency.
A year removed from both Miami’s bullying scandal and the murder accusations surrounding New England tight end Aaron Hernandez, the potential to have multiple teams vying for wild card spots in 2014 should thrust the AFC East into the spotlight for on-field drama, rather than off-field issues.
Here’s a look at how Miami’s division rivals look entering training camp (2013 record in parenthesis):
Rookies: DL Dominique Easley (first round, Florida), QB Jimmy Garoppolo (second, Eastern Illinois), OL Bryan Stork (fourth, Florida State), RB James White (fourth, Wisconsin), OT Cameron Fleming (fourth, Stanford), G Jon Halapio (sixth, Florida), DE Zach Moore (sixth, Concordia), CB Jemea Thomas (sixth, Georgia Tech), WR Jeremy Gallon (seventh, Michigan).
Analysis: As long as Tom Brady is quarterback in New England, the Patriots will always be in a good position to not only win the division, but also make noise come playoff time.
Playing through the majority of last season without wide receiver Danny Amendola or the tight end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Brady was still able to throw for over 4,000 passing yards. Now, with a healthy Gronkowski and Amendola, the Patriots have the potential to rival Denver as the league’s highest-scoring offense.
Finishing the 2013 season ranked 18th in pass defense, the team brought in free-agent cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis to fill the holes in their secondary. Revis, a five-time Pro Bowler, will be playing with a chip on his shoulder as he looks to prove he is still a top corner in the NFL after a down-year in Tampa Bay.
One of the league’s most talented teams on paper, the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick will be thinking Super Bowl or bust as they look for their first championship since 2004.
NEW YORK JETS (8-8, 3rd)
Key free-agent additions: WR Eric Decker (Denver), T Breno Giacomini (Seattle), RB Chris Johnson (Tennessee).
Key free-agent losses: CB Antonio Cromartie (Arizona), T Austin Howard (Oakland), CB Isaiah Trufant (Cleveland).
Analysis: Avoiding the ax yet again, head coach Rex Ryan will need the Jets to make significant strides this season if he hopes to remain employed in New York.
Reinforcing Ryan’s already imposing defense by selecting free safety Calvin Pryor in the first round of this year’s draft, the Jets’ biggest concern this offseason was improving on an offense that ranked 25th in total yards in 2013.
The addition of free-agent veterans like wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson could pay big dividends as the team looks to surround second-year quarterback Geno Smith with as many weapons as possible.
In case Smith isn’t up to the task, however, the team signed former Eagles quarterback Michael Vick as a reliable insurance policy.
If Smith is able to avoid a sophomore slump, though, his dynamic playmaking ability and newfound weapons could have the Jets competing for a wild card spot.
BUFFALO BILLS (6-10, 4th)
Key free-agent additions: RB Anthony Dixon (San Francisco), CB Corey Graham (Baltimore), OLB Keith Rivers (New York Giants), ILB Brandon Spikes (New England), G Chris Williams (St. Louis).
Key free-agent losses: S Jairus Byrd (New Orleans).
Rookies: WR Sammy Watkins (first round, Clemson), OT Cyrus Ouandjio (second, Alabama), ILB Preston Brown (third, Louisville), CB Ross Cockrell (fourth, Duke), OG Cyril Richardson (fifth, Baylor), OLB Randell Johnson (seventh, Florida Atlantic), OT Seantrel Henderson (seventh, Miami).
Analysis: Entering his second season with the Bills, head coach Doug Marrone should expect to see vast improvements from an offense that scored the eighth-fewest touchdowns in the NFL last season. Aside from moving up in the 2014 draft to snag top-ranked wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the addition of free-agent running back Anthony Dixon will bolster and already deep backfield alongside Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Under center, second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, who missed six regular season games in 2013 due to injury, will look to build upon the few flashes of brilliance he showed as a rookie. With Watkins stretching the field and Spiller serving as a safety net in the backfield, expect a healthy Manuel to show signs of improvement.
On the defensive side of the ball, the free-agency departure of star safety Jairus Byrd and a season-ending ACL injury to 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Kiko Alonso could mean a step backward for a budding Bills defense that finished 10th in the NFL in total yards allowed last season. Even with a new-look linebacker corps that includes free agents like Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers, keeping opponents off the scoreboard could be an issue.
The Bills are headed in the right direction, but with an inexperienced offense and the loss of Alonso on defense, they are likely to fall short of the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season.