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Ben Volin | On Football

Breaking down the AFC East race, with all four teams holding playoff spots right now

Bill Belichick (left) and the Patriots take on Robert Saleh and the Jets Sunday, with both teams — and the rest of the division — in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt.Noah Murray/Associated Press

It has been surprisingly common in the NFL to see three playoff teams come out of one division. It happened seven times between 2002 and 2019.

It has become even more common since a third wild-card team was added in 2020, with the AFC North in 2020 and NFC West in 2021 both producing three playoff teams.

But this year, the AFC East could be on pace for something unprecedented: Entering the Week 11 games, all four teams are in playoff position.

The 7-3 Dolphins lead the division and have the No. 2 AFC seed, sitting a half-game behind the Chiefs for the top spot.


The 6-3 Jets have the top AFC wild-card spot, at No. 5, thanks to a head-to-head win over the Bills.

The 6-3 Bills are next at No. 6.

And the 5-4 Patriots are in the No. 7 spot, holding tiebreakers over the Chargers and Bengals, who are also 5-4.

Jets coach Robert Saleh, whose team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010, doesn’t want to hear any talk about all four AFC East teams making the postseason.

“There’s a lot of football to be played before we even think about scenarios,” he said. “We also all have to play one another.”

He’s right on that second point. There are still seven games left between AFC East rivals, which means they might cannibalize each other down the stretch.

But all four teams are squarely in the mix. And the AFC race doesn’t have many other contenders beyond the Chargers, Bengals, and 4-5-1 Colts.

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedules for the AFC East teams and assess their chances of getting into the playoffs:


Conference rank: 2

Division record: 2-1

Remaining schedule: Bye, vs. Texans, at 49ers, at Chargers, at Bills, vs. Packers, at Patriots, vs. Jets


Coach Mike McDaniel, in his first season, has the Dolphins in first place in the division.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Analysis: The Dolphins had impressive early wins over the Ravens and Bills, and lately have been beating up on the dregs, with four straight wins over the Steelers, Lions, Bears, and Browns. They have the most explosive offense in the NFL, and probably will improve to 8-3 when they face the Texans after this week’s bye.

But December and January will be enormous tests. The Dolphins are lucky to play only two cold-weather games (at Buffalo and New England), but they have a three-game road trip against three very good teams: the 49ers, Chargers, and Bills. The Week 17 game at New England could be big for both teams, and a Christmas visit from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers probably won’t be easy.

The Dolphins have racked up enough wins to be a good bet to make the playoffs. But their closing stretch, with three AFC East games in the last four weeks, will determine whether they win the division for the first time since 2008. An October loss to the Jets without Tua Tagovailoa could loom large in tiebreaker scenarios.


Conference rank: 5

Division record: 2-1

Remaining schedule: at Patriots, vs. Bears, at Vikings, at Bills, vs. Lions, vs. Jaguars, at Seahawks, at Dolphins

Analysis: Props to the Jets for putting together an impressive first half, with signature wins over the Dolphins, Packers, and Bills. They are 5-1 with Zach Wilson at quarterback, a testament to the quality team they have built around him. The Jets haven’t been this relevant this late into a season in seven years.


But it feels as if they are about to turn into a pumpkin. Five of their final eight games are on the road, and all are against teams currently in the playoff field: New England, Minnesota, Buffalo, Seattle, and Miami.

The Jets also will be playing a lot of high-powered offenses. The Vikings, Bills, Lions, Seahawks, and Dolphins are all top-10 scoring offenses, and the Bears are firing right now behind Justin Fields. And if the Jets are close for a wild-card spot, the closing stretch is a doozy — road trips to Seattle and Miami.

The Jets are going to have to score points and play mistake-free football to win games in the second half. It’s hard seeing that with Wilson.


Conference rank: 6

Division record: 0-2

Remaining schedule: vs. Browns, at Lions, at Patriots, vs. Jets, vs. Dolphins, at Bears, at Bengals, vs. Patriots

Analysis: Last Sunday’s shocking loss to the Vikings was bad enough. But the two defeats that really stung were the divisional losses — to the Dolphins in Week 3 and the Jets in Week 9. Those could prove enormous when the Bills are fighting the Dolphins (most likely) for the division title.

Can Josh Allen and the Bills rebound from a recent tough stretch?Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

Facing Fields and Joe Burrow on the road won’t be fun. And the Bills will be dealing with the elements almost every week for the rest of the season. They will be spared from the weather the next two games, playing both the Browns and Lions at Detroit. But the Bills still have three potential weather games at home (Jets, Dolphins, and Patriots) and three on the road (Patriots, Bears, Bengals).


But the Bills season really comes down to their four division games. They get three straight AFC East games in Weeks 13-15, then the Patriots again in the season finale, for which the Bills will have a short week coming off a Monday night game. The Bills probably have to win all four; otherwise, they’ll be spending the playoffs on the road.


Conference rank: 7

Division record: 1-1

Remaining schedule: vs. Jets, at Vikings, vs. Bills, at Cardinals, at Raiders, vs. Bengals, vs. Dolphins, at Bills

Analysis: Like the Dolphins, the Patriots have been beating up on bad teams and QBs — the Lions, Browns, Colts, and Zach Wilson. They have just one win over a team with a winning record (Jets).

Now the schedule gets real. Six of the remaining eight games are against teams with winning records. Five are against top-10 scoring offenses, and the Cardinals and Raiders are just outside at 13th and 14th.

The Patriots have short weeks to face the Vikings and Raiders. They close with two of their toughest nemeses, the Dolphins and Bills. And after this week’s game against the Jets, they face nothing but legit quarterbacks the rest of the way: Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen (twice), Kyler Murray, Derek Carr, Burrow and Tagovailoa.


Like last year, the closing stretch will tell us who the Patriots really are. They’d better show up and perform better this time.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.