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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

In AFC East, there’s Tom Brady, then everyone else

The standings in the AFC East say there is only one game separating the 3-2 Patriots from the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins, all owners of 2-3 marks. The margin feels larger because of Tom Brady.

AP and Getty Images

The standings in the AFC East say there is only one game separating the 3-2 Patriots from the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins, all owners of 2-3 marks. The margin feels larger because of Tom Brady.

Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is the latest challenger to the throne, the latest hope for the hopeless huddling masses of the AFC East that can only peer through the gate of the football palace in Foxborough and marvel at its crown jewel of a quarterback.

First-round picks have arrived and shriveled like the autumn leaves. Proven veterans, journeymen, sudden Cinderellas, men from Harvard (Ryan Fitzpatrick), Dartmouth (Jay Fiedler) and Stanford (Trent Edwards), they’ve all tried to bridge the quarterback gap in the division. They’ve all failed to measure up.

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The eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M, Tannehill is the 29th starting quarterback used by the Patriots’ AFC East opponents since Tom Brady’s first season as a full-time starter, 2002. That was the last year in which he was healthy that a team other than the Patriots won the division. The Jets, with Chad Pennington at the controls, went 9-7 and claimed the division crown.

Since ’02, the Patriots have used only one other starting quarterback, Matt Cassel, who subbed for Brady in 2008, when Brady tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee 15 offensive snaps into the season.

Football is a complicated game full of strategy and planning, but you don’t need to know what Cover 6 looks like to understand that as long as Brady reigns as the preeminent passer in the division, the Patriots will wear the AFC East crown. Brady remains the single biggest advantage the Patriots have over their brethren. The rest of the division is doing one big quarterback kneel at New England’s feet.

The standings in the AFC East say there is only one game separating the 3-2 Patriots from the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins, all owners of 2-3 marks. The margin feels larger because of Brady.

Who is the second-best quarterback in the division since 2002? The contenders are Pennington, Drew Bledsoe, and the one year of Broadway Brett Favre, which is more memorable for the text he sent to a female Jets employee than the games he played.

The gap between the Patriots and the rest of their dilapidated division has gotten wider than Glen Davis’s shorts.

The Bills are allowing more points to be presented than Jim Lehrer, having surrendered 52 to the Patriots Sept. 30 and 45 to the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday. General manager Buddy Nix is openly questioning the effort of his defense. He should be openly questioning the six-year, $59 million contract he gave to the affable Fitzpatrick. Since Fitzpatrick agreed to the deal on Oct. 28 of last year, no quarterback in the league has thrown more interceptions than his 25, which are seven more than (Off The) Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez, who reportedly is dating Eva Longoria, seems to complete more passes off the field than on it. His 48.4 percent completion rate is the worst in the league among qualified passers. A man of many guarantees, Jets coach Rex Ryan refused to guarantee that Sanchez would be his starter the rest of the season when asked on Wednesday.

Tebow Time could be upon us.

With Tannehill and new coach Joe Philbin, the Dolphins have shown surprising competitiveness. They upset the Cincinnati Bengals last week, two of their losses have come in overtime, and the other was to the 5-0 Houston Texans. But a rookie QB and head coach aren’t beating Brady and Bill Belichick. There’s a better chance of Wes Welker being the lead comedian at a Belichick roast.

No division in football has as wide a chasm at quarterback than the AFC East. Certainly, the gap between Houston’s Matt Schaub and Indianapolis prodigy Andrew Luck is not as vast as that between Brady, a walk-in Hall of Famer, and the AFC East passers. Luck may be the LeBron James of quarterback prospects, a man-child.

San Francisco’s Alex Smith is finally living up to his No. 1 overall pick status, but is he really that much better than Kevin Kolb or Sam Bradford, or is he just on a better team?

This plays into an eternal debate we have here: Who is more valuable, Brady or Belichick?

The Patriots’ 11-5 season in 2008 without Brady is supposed to be incontrovertible evidence that Belichick is more of a sine qua non element. But that was a team that had gone 18-1 the previous season. It lost Brady, and it didn’t make the playoffs.

Belichick’s case has certainly been buttressed by the plight of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are 1-4 this season with head coach Sean Payton suspended for the season, despite still having Drew Brees leading the NFL in touchdown passes.

But I’ve always been of the mind-set that Belichick was pretty brilliant during his tenure in Cleveland, an opinion that is obviously shared by the folks at NFL Films. The difference now is that he has a Hall of Famer in his huddle (or no-huddle) instead of peripatetic passers like Vinny Testaverde, Todd Philcox, Mark Rypien, and Eric Zeier.

There are few football coaches Belichick respects as much as Nick Saban. If Saban had ended up with Brees as his free agent quarterback acquisition in 2006 instead of Daunte Culpepper, then instead of being emperor of the NFL’s 33d team, the University of Alabama program, Saban would be in South Beach.

Saban is as good a football coach as there is on this planet, but he saw he wasn’t winning this division as long as Belichick had Brady and he had Cleo Lemon.

The lack of a cornerstone QB is ultimately why Pumped-’n’-Jacked Pete Carroll is fated to end his coaching career in the college ranks. He is just having a cup of coffee, or a tall latte, with the Seahawks unless he finds a quarterback.

It’s not just one game that separates the Patriots from the rest of the AFC East. It’s one player.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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