With Tom Brady gone, who will win the wide-open AFC East?
Tom Brady’s got a new uniform.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) March 20, 2020
So, does that mean the AFC East will now have a new champion?
The New England Patriots, behind head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, have won the last 11 AFC East titles and 17 of the last 19.
However, only one part of that leadership equation remains heading into the 2020 NFL season.
After 20 seasons in New England, highlighted by 6 Super Bowls, 4 Super Bowl MVPs and 3 NFL MVP awards, Brady is now a member of the NFC South with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meaning the Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East will potentially be no more.
Since the division was established in 1960, the AFC East has appeared in 20 Super Bowls and won 9 of them, with six of those, of course, belonging to New England.
The greatest from the 🐐.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) February 4, 2019
And even with Brady taking his talents down south, it seems New England remains the favorite to win the division behind second-year QB, Jarrett Stidham, according to FOX Bet, at +120, followed by the Bills (+130), Jets (+700), and Dolphins (+1000).
Stidham, a fourth round pick in 2019, looks to officially be Brady’s successor in New England. He saw the field momentarily last season, when he relieved Brady in the fourth quarter of a Week 3 blowout win over the New York Jets. He completed two of his three pass attempts, but in that time, threw a pick-6.
Patriots QB Jarrett Stidham has attempted FOUR passes in the NFL.
This was one of thempic.twitter.com/mLJHr3QIyj
— Pick Six Podcast (@picksixpod) May 3, 2020
Still, Nick Wright believes the Patriots still have the tools to get it done, and would bet on them to win the AFC East this upcoming season, mainly based on their schedule.
“I think [the AFC East] will be the most tightly contested division, with three different teams having the chance to win the division heading into Week 17, but for the 12th straight year, I believe the New England Patriots will win the division at 10-6. I don’t think it’s going to be exactly smooth sailing early on … I think they are 4-6 with six games remaining. How do they get to 10-6? Well, they run the table at the end with New England peaking at the end of the year. The quarterback situation a little more settled and a very fortuitous end of year schedule.”
Let’s take a look at that schedule, which is ranked the toughest schedule coming into the 2020 season.
The Patriots open up the season at home against Miami, but then it looks to be tough sledding from there over the first half of the season. Stidham and New England are at Seattle in Week 2, at Kansas City in Week 4, host San Francisco in Week 8 and will travel to face the Bills and Jets in Weeks 8 and 9, respectively.
Football? Is that you?!
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) May 7, 2020
The Pats will then host Baltimore in Week 10 and travel to Houston in Week 11, before flying West to take on the Los Angeles Chargers and Los Angeles Rams in Weeks 13 and 14.
Like Wright said, not exactly smooth sailing, considering the Patriots’ opponents put together a combined record of 137-118-1 last season, the highest opponents’ combined winning percentage coming into 2020.
Despite the odds to win the division favoring the defending AFC East champs, retired NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth isn’t so sure that the Patriots are the team to beat this year, considering the lingering effects of losing Tom Brady.
Foxworth thinks the Bills should be the favorite.
“It feels like both of those teams – the Pats and the Bills – are very similar in that the offenses weren’t great, but were okay, but they had defenses that were outstanding. It feels like the Bills’ defense is going to return almost fully intact and they got better on offense. If they believe in that quarterback that they have there, this is a year that they must win it. As for the Pats, their defense got a little worse, they lost some mobility and they lost the best quarterback of all-time, so you expect them to regress … this is their chance [the Bills] to put it together and finally take that division back.”
New England featured the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL last season, allowing 275.9 yards and 14.1 points per game, both league-lows. The Patriots were one of only three teams to allow less than 300 yards per game – the 49ers allowed 281.8 and the Bills allowed 298.3 – and New England led the league with 25 interceptions.
But the Bills were impressive in their own right, boasting the No. 3 ranked defense in the NFL, one that was 10th against the run (103.1), 4th against the pass (195.2) and 2nd in points allowed (16.2).
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) December 16, 2019
However, Pro Football Talk’s Chris Simms doesn’t believe in Buffalo’s defense as much as Foxworth does, and still thinks that New England has the depth defensively to win another AFC East crown.
“I’m not counting [the Patriots] out … And I think the big thing here too, the Patriots defense, yes they lost a few players, but it’s still special. It was the No. 1 defense in football last year. They tried to improve that defense through the draft this offseason. I still think Jarrett Stidham, whether he hits the ground running or whether it takes him a little to get his feet underneath him and get used to the NFL, I think the Patriots will still be highly competitive because of that defense and their ability to stop people from scoring and putting up big yards.”
Speaking of Stidham, chances are that the AFC East Division crown will somewhat be decided based on which young quarterback has a breakout season.
Assuming the Dolphins go with their top five pick, the starting quarterbacks in the division will be Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, the Jets’ Sam Darnold, and Stidham in New England.
The Dolphins went 6-10 overall last season and 2-4 in the division. With the No. 5 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, they drafted Tagovailoa, and even though he has yet to play on the big stage, he had quite the career at Alabama. He led the Tide to back-to-back National Championship Game appearances in 2017 and 2018 season, and won a title during the 2017 season.
Say hello to the Tua era in Miami! ☀️
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) April 24, 2020
Last season, in Allen’s second season as a starter, he helped Buffalo to their first 10-win campaign and second playoff appearance since 1999, finishing the year 10-6 overall and 3-3 in the division.
Allen recorded 3,089 passing yards, 20 passing touchdowns and 9 interceptions in 2019. He also carried the ball 109 times for 510 rushing yards for 9 touchdowns, and proved his clutch gene, leading the league with 4 fourth quarter comebacks and 5 game-winning drives.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) September 24, 2019
Similar to Allen, Darnold was also in his second year as a starter but didn’t have quite the same success. He finished his sophomore campaign with 3,024 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, and missed three games due to a bout with mononucleosis.
Still, Darnold led the Jets to a 7-6 record and 2-3 division record in games that he played.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) September 8, 2019
NFL insider Field Yates said recently that he believes Darnold is going to be the difference-maker in the AFC East this upcoming season, assuming he has an improved offensive line in New York.
“Sam Darnold was No. 1 on my AFC East rankings with Tua behind him, then Josh Allen, and then Jarrett Stidham … You mention he’s 22 years old and you mention how he has had a lot of factors working against him but when things kind of got right around him for the last half of last season, he threw 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the final eight games of 2019 … Now the offensive line looks far improved already going into 2020 … I’m still a believer that Sam Darnold has the most upside of any AFC East quarterback and might already be the best of that four.”
Darnold was sacked 33 times in 13 games last season, including 8 times at Jacksonville in Week 4. In the four games where Darnold was sacked three or more times, the Jets were winless. In the seven games where he was sacked twice or fewer, New York was 7-2.
However, Shanon Sharpe’s mind, the quarterback position won’t be the deciding factor in the division, considering the Patriots won the AFC East last season with average quarterback play from Brady.
In 2019, Brady completed 60.8 percent of his passes, the third worst mark in his career. His 4,057 passing yards were the fewest of his career since 2010, and his 24 passing touchdowns were the tied for the third fewest of his career. His 88.0 passer rating was tied for 18th in the NFL.
“It appears to me that coach Belichick says we’re going to win games in 2020 just like we won last year. They were not many games that we can look back on in 2019 and say, ‘You know, they won that game because Tom Brady was the quarterback.’ They played outstanding defense, Brady minimized his turnovers and so it looks like coach Belichick says, ‘I want to have a [top] defense again. Stid, don’t turn the ball over and we’re going to win ball games like a that.'”
Whew. A lot of opinions are flying around regarding this division.
Should make for some must-see TV.
What we do know is that for the first time in two decades, the Patriots will enter the season with only one GOAT on their side.
We’ll wait and see if that’s enough.