It feels as if not much has come as easily as usual for the Patriots this season, well, except for the AFC East.
The division is always prepared over-easy for the Patriots. The New York Jets didn’t disappoint Sunday, as they played the perfect foil in New England’s feel-good 27-13 road victory that kicked off the stretch run and positioned the Patriots for their birthright/berth right first-round playoff bye.
In a season in which the Patriots have struggled to attain consistency, there is no stress, struggle, or strain required to capture the AFC East. This is a year in which the Patriots need the cushy support of their division to prop them up a bit. Their usual pile of division wins represents the difference between obtaining the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and home-field advantage or having to go on the road to get to a third straight Super Bowl.
The good news for the 8-3 Patriots as they pursue the 9-2 Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC’s top playoff perch is that three of the final five games are in the division, with only the annual sojourn to South Florida to play the Dolphins Dec. 9 remotely threatening. The AFC East is riding to the rescue.
It’s a football fiat that the Patriots win the AFC East. The Patriots rule over their hapless divisional brethren like the Habsburgs. They’re cruising to their 10th straight division title and 15th in the last 16 seasons. They own double-digit victories in all three of their division games this season. Sunday’s win over the Jets, losers of five straight, was actually the closest division game the Patriots have played this year.
The Patriots’ divisional dominance is so unchallenged each season that it’s easy to forget that in each of the last two seasons another AFC East outfit has back-doored into the playoffs: the Bills last year and the Dolphins in 2016. It always seems as if the Patriots’ AFC East rivals are in some state of assembly required — rebuilding, retooling, or remaking in a vain attempt to pull even with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Sunday’s win over the J-E-T-S was a confidence-builder for the Patriots, a game they can build upon as they gear up for another ring run. The Patriots hit all the items on their post-bye week checklist.
Rob Gronkowski reintegrated into the offense and reintroduced to the end zone, check. Brady back in form and finding the end zone with his passes, check. Rookie running back Sony Michel back on track after his knee injury, check. Stephon Gilmore, who came up with a big interception, returning to shutdown-cornerback mode, check. Chris Hogan reinserted into Brady’s Circle of Trust, check. Stingy red zone defense reengaged, check.
The Patriots rolled the Jets, racking up 215 rushing yards and averaging 6 yards per carry. It was an impressive performance for Michel (133 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries) and the ground game. Except, ceding that much ground wasn’t unusual for the Jets. They allowed 212 yards rushing on 46 carries in their previous game against the Bills.
The Patriots, as they usually do, ruthlessly exploited an opponent’s weakness. There are a lot of weaknesses to exploit among their divisional “competitors” this year and most years. The AFC East is the only division in football that doesn’t have more than one team with a record of .500 or better.
The current runners-up in the AFC East are the 5-6 Dolphins, who blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts in an example of AFC East ineptitude. Miami was petrified to let faux franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill throw twice on third and long with the game on the line. They took the ball out of Tannehill’s shaky hands and took the L.
Miami has won just two games after a 3-0 start, one of them against the feeble Jets in an intradivisional contest that didn’t feature an offensive touchdown. AFC East football, it’s fan-tastic.
Astonishingly, Tannehill, who returned from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss five games, is the second-best quarterback in the division. The division is sprinkled with assorted rookies and retread backups, including the Jets’ Josh McCown, who started against the Patriots for injured rookie Sam Darnold. Brady might not be having his best season, but he is far and away the best quarterback in the AFC Least.
Pointing out the Patriots’ path-of-least-resistance division is a sore subject for some of the Foxborough Faithful. They take it as somehow disparaging or diminishing what the Patriots have accomplished. That’s not the case. It’s merely pointing out just how absolute their divisional dominance has been. The Patriots are 84-23 (.785) in AFC East play during the regular season since 2001. (Note that in 2001 the Colts were in the pre-realignment AFC East.)
The idea that the Patriots are the preeminent modern NFL dynasty via their own excellence and that they play in a desultory division are not mutually exclusive.
The Patriots have terrorized, demoralized, and traumatized their division rivals. The cumulative effect of New England’s standard has definitely contributed to the sustained fecklessness of their competitors, save for the brief shining moments of Eric Mangini’s first season with the Jets and Rex Ryan’s first two seasons as HC of the NYJ.
If the Patriots weren’t so good, their division competition wouldn’t look as bad by comparison, but they would still be bad relative to actual NFL contenders. The Bills haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. The Dolphins haven’t won one since Brady’s rookie season of 2000. The Jets own all six non-Patriots AFC East playoff victories since 2001.
Owners of 18 straight non-losing seasons, the Patriots win against everybody because they’re the paragon of sustained success in the salary-cap era. There is no denying that. The Patriots are 133-43 against non-AFC East teams in the regular season since 2001, a .756 winning percentage. Overall, they have a 217-66 regular-season record since 2001 (.767).
But they have a Standard Oil-like monopoly over the AFC East that aids their playoff seeding, which looks crucial this season considering how they’ve played on the road outside of the division (1-3, three double-digit losses).
Are the divisional competitors this bad because the Patriots are so good or have the Patriots benefitted from an almost unfathomable lack of long-term challengers in the division? Does it matter? The Patriots are successful because they work every angle and capitalize on every advantage.
The division is a boon to Belichick & Co., and they need to continue to use it to their advantage by taking advantage of the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins.