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Are Patriots still the team to beat in the AFC East? Dolphins linebacker doesn't think so

The Patriots have won the AFC East in 10 of the last 12 seasons. The Patriots have won the AFC East in 10 of the last 12 seasons. (Al Tielemans/SI)

Opinions about the New England Patriots' 2013 outlook are broken down into two camps:

1. The Patriots, in light of Aaron Hernandez's arrest and Rob Gronkowski's lingering health problems, are mid-tumble from the NFL's elite to a middle-of-the-pack team, their hold on the AFC East weakening by the day.

2. New England's actually being underrated, with more than enough talent to overcome lowered expectations.

The reality is that the latter probably is closer to the truth. But the Patriots' AFC East rivals believe wholeheartedly in argument No. 1. Which is all that matters.

New Miami linebacker Dannell Ellerbe confirmed that line of thinking to CBSSports' Mike Freeman, saying, "I don't think you can say the Patriots are the same as before after what happened to Hernandez." Ellerbe also said that he believes the Patriots are vulnerable and that the Dolphins feel like they can knock New England from the mountaintop.

As Freeman points out, those statements are not Ellerbe being cocky or trying to deliver bulletin-board material. It's just how the Dolphins (and Bills and Jets) are approaching this summer -- as if the division is up for grabs. That is the approach every team should have in early July, be it Miami trying to close the gap in the AFC East or Arizona dreaming of shocking the NFC West's favorites.

So, why do Ellerbe's rather inconsequential words ring with more volume?

Mainly because, whether Buffalo, Miami or New York will admit it or not (they won't), the Patriots have as much a mental edge over the AFC East as a physical one. New England has won the division title 10 times in the past 12 seasons, with the only slip-ups coming in 2002 and 2008 (the Patriots finished tied for first those years and lost out on tiebreakers).

On paper, they're still the team to beat this year, too. Hernandez may be behind bars and Gronkowski could sit out the first several weeks, but talent remains. There's the veteran offensive line, a dangerous backfield, that quarterback from the UGG commercials, a defensive backfield buoyed by Aqib Talib's arrival last season, a dangerous pass rush and so on. Plus, the Patriots still have that Belichick guy, who certainly deserves the edge over Rex Ryan, rookie Doug Marrone or second-year coach Joe Philbin.

The gap between the Patriots and everyone else in the AFC East is not what it was even last season, though, which was true even before Hernandez was handcuffed by Massachusetts cops.

Ellerbe's Dolphins, in fact, will be a chic playoff pick next month when all the experts make their predictions. They spent big money in recent months to land Ellerbe, WR Mike Wallace, RT Tyson Clabo, CB Brent Grimes and others, then scored dynamic defender Dion Jordan in the first round of the draft.

The Bills and Jets, meanwhile, each drafted what they hope will be their quarterbacks of the future in E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith, respectively. Buffalo could be especially close to contention if either Manuel or Kevin Kolb can deliver at QB this season.

But all of this is Xs and Os, trying to match personnel vs. personnel to declare a division champ in July. The point of Ellerbe's remarks, the real heart of the matter, is that the AFC East finally feels like a wide-open race again.

The evidence behind such a thought is far less important, at least right now, than the perception.

And the perception is that the Patriots are wounded, while their division rivals are ready to pounce.
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