It’s supposed to represent a landmark. For the Patriots, it’s become little more than a routine checkpoint.
If the Patriots win Sunday in Miami, they’ll secure their 10th straight AFC East title. Should they lose, it almost surely will do little more than prolong the inevitable, with the Patriots remaining massive favorites to continue their run of unrivaled divisional dominance.
Obviously, the Patriots of 2001-18 have been a team without peer in NFL history, one that has sustained Super Bowl ambitions longer than any in league annals. The biggest factor in their dominance of the division is the fact that they’re perennially ranked among the best teams in the NFL.
But how much of New England’s unchallenged perch atop the AFC East is a testament to a bunch of — to borrow an expression — tomato cans in the division? To what degree has the AFC East been defined by the Patriots’ excellence, and how much of the division’s structure is a reflection of how bad the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets have been? Is the AFC East so lopsided because, beyond the Patriots, it’s been a particularly bad division?
The implications of playing in a bad division are obvious. Not only would it allow a team to better manage its schedule (including using players somewhat conservatively and managing their workloads), but it also would improve a team’s chances of a first-round bye and/or home-field advantage in the playoffs — huge factors in determining who advances to the Super Bowl.
Certainly, the Patriots routinely have wiped out their divisional opponents. Dating to the league’s move from a six- to an eight-division structure in 2002, New England has a .785 winning percentage in the AFC East — easily the best mark by any team against its division.
Yet the Patriots also have the NFL’s best record outside of their division, a .757 record. In other words, whereas New England averages 12.6 wins per 16 games against AFC East teams, they average 12.1 wins per 16 games outside of the division.
That relatively slight difference is less than that of the NFL’s other powerhouses over a similar period. The Steelers, for instance, have averaged roughly 1.3 additional wins per 16 games against divisional as opposed to non-division opponents; the Colts have about 1.7 more wins per 16 games over the same stretch when playing AFC South opponents as opposed to non-division competition, while the Packers have about 1.6 more wins per 16 games against NFC North teams as opposed to non-division foes.
The AFC East is tied for the fewest wild-card teams of any division since 2002 with six. Yet that number matches the number of wild-card teams in the same period that have come out of the NFC West, while falling just short of the number of wild-card teams from the AFC West (seven). Moreover, the AFC East likely would have had more playoff teams during that time had Miami, New York, and Buffalo not had to contend with New England.
The 2003 Dolphins (10-6) and 2004 Bills (9-7) were good teams that didn’t advance to the playoffs in no small part because they lost twice to Patriots teams that won the Super Bowl. The 2015 Jets (10-6), 2014 Bills (9-7), and 2005 Dolphins (9-7) all missed the playoffs after splitting their regular-season slates with New England.
The AFC East, outside of the Patriots, is more accurately described as mediocre as opposed to terrible over the past 17 years. Though the division hasn’t had a sustained, worthy rival to New England since 2002, it also hasn’t had the sort of chum (the Browns come to mind) that has been tossed in the water of the other divisions.
That’s evident in looking at the performance of AFC East teams as a whole outside the division. Thanks to the Patriots, the AFC East has the best out-of-division winning percentage (.540) of any NFL division in the last 17 seasons. But removing the Patriots — as well as the top out-of-division team in each division — over the same span, the AFC East looks like a middle-of-the-pack grouping.
The Bills, Jets, and Dolphins have a combined .465 winning percentage when playing teams outside the AFC East. That’s not very good . . . but it’s better than the non-Colts teams in the AFC South (.446), and largely in line with the bottom three teams in the AFC North (.468 in out-of-division games, not including the Steelers) and AFC West (.476, not including Denver).
In other words, most years, the competition in the AFC East looks a lot like that in the other AFC divisions. Yes, it’s glaring that Buffalo, Miami, and New York have been unable to develop a decent quarterback, but they have, at times, had other strengths (typically defense) that have made them normal, run-of-the-mill opponents.
The Patriots rarely have been challenged by another standout team, but there are few instances under the current division structure in which two or three of the NFL’s top handful of teams have occupied the same division.
The fact that New England continues to lord over the AFC East in unprecedented fashion seems less a reflection of their most common opponents and more a testament to their mind-blowing consistency.