Is the AFC East finally ready for a changing of the guard in 2020?
The last time the New England Patriots didn’t win the AFC East was 2008, when quarterback Tom Brady missed the season with a torn ACL. Now that Brady is no longer in the division, could things come full circle with a new AFC East champion?
The Patriots’ streak of 11 straight division crowns is an NFL record, with the next-closest team being the Los Angeles Rams, who won the NFC West seven consecutive times (1973 to ’79).
The Patriots join the Atlanta Braves (14) as the only franchises from the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL to win at least 10 straight division titles.
The New York Yankees (1998-2006), Colorado Avalanche (1995-2003), Los Angeles Lakers (1982-90) and Boston Celtics (1957-65) are the teams from the other major four sports that have streaks of nine straight titles.
Prior to their one-year agreement with quarterback Cam Newton in late June, the Brady-less Patriots appeared to be more vulnerable, while the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have all seemed to make progress this offseason. Does Newton’s arrival alter the outlook and swing the pendulum back in the Patriots’ favor?
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Rich Cimini (Jets), Marcel Louis-Jacques (Bills), Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Cameron Wolfe (Dolphins) make the case for — and against — the teams they cover.
Why they will win the AFC East: Top to bottom, this is the most talented roster on paper in the division. With 10 starters returning on both sides of the ball and a top-three scoring defense in each of the past two seasons, the Bills were already in position to make a run at the division crown before Brady left the Patriots. Now that they’ve added receiver Stefon Diggs to boost last season’s anemic passing offense, the Bills are poised to earn their first division title since 1995.
Why they will not: Buffalo’s schedule turns rugged in Week 5, which starts a run of four games against 2019 playoff teams in five weeks. If the Bills stumble through this stretch, they could have trouble winning the division. Also, Buffalo’s offensive continuity is key, and a lot is riding on quarterback Josh Allen‘s connection with Diggs, which might take time following a limited offseason because of the coronavirus pandemic. — Louis-Jacques
Why they will win the AFC East: No AFC East team improved more than the Dolphins this offseason. Tua Tagovailoa has more upside than any quarterback here, and coach Brian Flores coaxed a 5-11 record out of the NFL’s worst roster in 2019.
Brady is gone, and even with Newton’s arrival, this Patriots team doesn’t command the same fear as it once did. The Bills are probably at least division co-favorites, but they aren’t scaring anyone. The Jets are still … the Jets. The division is wide open, so why not the Dolphins?
Why they will not: It’s a year too early. The Dolphins have plenty of young talent, but coming off a shortened offseason, it’s a lot to ask for them to win the division with a rookie quarterback trying to break into the lineup, four or five new starters on the offensive line and two new coordinators. The Patriots and Bills have more proven talent and cohesiveness going into the 2020 season. Miami should be competitive, but 2021 more likely will be their year. — Wolfe
New York Jets
Rich Cimini weighs all the factors in Jamal Adams’ request for a trade from the Jets.
Why they will win the AFC East: The defense is good enough to carry the team through the tough early portion of the schedule, giving quarterback Sam Darnold & Co. a chance to build chemistry and establish an identity. After a slow start, Darnold will enjoy a breakout season, with help from rejuvenated running back Le’Veon Bell and rookie wide receiver Denzel Mims. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2010. There’s a law of averages, right?
Why they will not: Whether Jamal Adams is on the team or not, his contract dispute will create a bad vibe that permeates the locker room. Coach Adam Gase won’t be able to overcome the turmoil, and everything will fall apart. The biggest reason, though: There’s still a shortage of talent on the roster. When a strong safety (Adams) is clearly the best player on the team, it’s a problem. — Cimini
New England Patriots
Stephen A. Smith and Louis Riddick passionately discuss if Jarrett Stidham or Cam Newton should enter Patriots training camp as the starter.
Why they will win the AFC East: Bill Belichick is still the coach, reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore still lines up at cornerback, and there’s a strong core of leadership that remains despite Brady’s departure. If Newton is healthy and can provide a solid level of play at quarterback (assuming he beats out second-year man Jarrett Stidham), that would answer the team’s biggest question, as his big-game experience is something that had been missing on this roster.
Why they will not: At some point, quarterbacks have to step up and make championship-type throws, and there remains a question as to whether Newton (health, system/culture fit) or Stidham (experience) can do that consistently. Add in a pandemic that eliminated the chance for practice, and the challenge only increases. Also, the schedule should test the Patriots, with road games against Seattle, Kansas City, Houston, the Rams and Chargers. — Reiss