It’s been a historically impressive year for the American League East, whose five teams had a combined .555 winning percentage heading into Sunday. The quality of the division has made a tough season for the Red Sox tougher, leaving them near the bottom of the pack looking up, in fourth place and clinging to an above-.500 finish.
As baseball winds down and the NFL ramps up, the AFC East is similarly poised to be one of the strongest divisions in the game. But this hard truth is also the same: The once-mighty Patriots are stuck at the bottom looking up at the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins.
A quick search of odds predicting the 2023 AFC standings leaves the Patriots not just last, but last by a consistently distant margin. The team that won 17 of 19 division titles from 2001-19, including an NFL-record 11 straight to end that span, hasn’t finished last since 2000, also remembered as coach Bill Belichick’s first year. But much like we’ve seen in baseball, where the Orioles have emerged from years of hibernation with a core of young talent and the Rays and Blue Jays are good enough to be in the wild-card mix, but where the big-market Red Sox and Yankees are playoff afterthoughts, the face of the AFC East has changed.
It’s the Bills who are three-time defending champions. It’s the Jets with the sexiest of all QB acquisitions after trading for Aaron Rodgers. It’s the Dolphins looking to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2000-01.
And it’s the Patriots hoping for a Mac Jones resurgence and some defensive dominance to crack that imposing gauntlet. After years of bullying the division behind the combined strength of Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots have to be scrappers, chipping away with a retooled offense under Bill O’Brien, hoping for an offensive line that can protect enough to make Jones’s RPOs, screens, and quick throws effective, and block enough to let Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott run free.
The division is getting its revenge.
Let’s start with the Jets, one of the longest-running punch lines in the NFL. The addition of Rodgers could be the final piece of a puzzle that was coming together last season, led in part by the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year in receiver Garrett Wilson and cornerback Sauce Gardner and anchored by an imposing defense. The Jets’ 7-10 record couldn’t get them out of last place, but they were playing meaningful football into the final week of the season despite an all-time awful QB combo of Zach Wilson, Mike White, and Joe Flacco.
Rodgers, a Super Bowl champ, a four-time league MVP, a 10-time Pro Bowler, and an all-time arm, changes everything. He’s also an all-time grudge keeper and chip-on-the-shoulder wearer, which only fuels his motivation to succeed this year. Belichick is an all-time defensive genius, but confounding Rodgers is not going to be nearly as easy as it was to force Wilson into multiple interceptions or leave Sam Darnold seeing ghosts. The Jets are a real threat, and as coach Robert Saleh put it recently, are intent on enjoying it.
“We embrace being a team that may have a target on its back,” Saleh said.
The Dolphins are also legit. Beset in the past by the health of Tua Tagovailoa, whose repeated concussions and ensuing treatment (or lack thereof) have alarmed the entire league, the quarterback said he changed his offseason workouts, including adding jiu-jitsu training, to better protect himself. Even while being limited to 13 starts last year, he set career highs with 3,548 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“Everything that I did this offseason entailed to what would keep me on the field for the entirety of the season,” Tagovailoa told reporters in training camp. “We understand that freaky things can happen. It’s football. It’s a physical sport. Not everything that you prepare for is what you’re going to get. So, I did the best that I could to get myself ready and prepped for this season, as far as injuries go.”
But coach Mike McDaniel admitted the strength of the division makes everything harder.
“If you’re trying to actually get to the AFC championship, if you’re trying to win the AFC championship, if you’re trying to win the Super Bowl, all those things, you better be a very good team and battle tested,” he said. “Our division should help us do that, but it’s going to be stressful.”
Up in Buffalo, Josh Allen is as durable and tough as they come, and he continues to set the division standard. The Bills haven’t tasted the ultimate postseason success, but they are the clearest successor to the Patriots for division dominance. They embarrassed the Patriots right out of the playoffs two seasons ago (47-17), and the Bills have won the last three regular-season games by a combined score of 92-54.
As a franchise, the Bills endured a lot in 2022, from the devastation of a racially motivated mass shooting in May that left 10 Black people dead in a local supermarket, to the snowstorms that shuffled their schedule, and finally, the collapse and near death of safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati. Those stresses certainly could have contributed to the Bills losing a home playoff game to the Bengals in the divisional round.
But if they ran out of gas last season, they are hoping to be refueled for this one.
“Those experiences you take with you from a learning standpoint and a wisdom standpoint,” coach Sean McDermott said this summer. “Whether it’s Damar’s situation or many other things that we went through, I think it makes you stronger as you go forward.”
The AFC East is stronger than ever. For the Patriots, the new world order is no fun.