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AFC East Preview: Do the Patriots Still Own It?

The Cam Newton signing could keep the division in the hands of the Patriots, as the Bills look to get things smoothed out with their young QB and the Jets and Dolphins try to turn the corner.

Everything changed for the AFC East on the night of June 28, when the Patriots signed Cam Newton.

Before that, the prognosis for the division was, for the first time in almost two decades, uncertain. Maybe this was the year the Jets, who finished 7–9 in 2019 despite a weak offensive line, a less-than-desirable slate of skill position players and a quarterback who missed a quarter of the season with mono, were ready to rise.

Or perhaps the Bills, who made the playoffs last year by scheming around still-developing quarterback Josh Allen and leaning on their deep defense, were poised to take charge.

Or maybe the Dolphins, who under coach Brian Flores swiftly tore down an underperforming roster and rebuilt it from the studs last year, would take command of the post–Tom Brady era behind rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa.

But then Bill Belichick made the power move the rest of the league was both fearing and expecting. He signed Newton, the 2015 MVP and one of the most difficult players to defend in modern league history—and for less than $10 million on a one-season rental. The 31-year-old arrives in New England motivated, after being cut from a Panthers team he brought to the Super Bowl five seasons ago and cold-shouldered by the rest of the league during free agency. And he will, for the first time in his career, be working with an offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, who is capable of harnessing Newton’s generational combination of power running and downfield throwing.

So, despite the seismic event of Brady’s departure for Tampa Bay, what will keep the Patriots from winning their 12th division title in a row, and their 18th in 20 years?

Much, of course, depends on Newton’s health. The quarterback injured his throwing shoulder in 2018 and then missed 14 games last year with a Lisfranc injury that required surgery on his left foot. Those issues help explain why Newton lingered on the market this year. Another wild card is the progress of 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham, the apparent Brady successor who saw a critical offseason evaporate at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Belichick’s defense will keep the team competitive regardless, but if his offense is clicking, New England will run away from the competition as it has so many times before.

Buffalo still has that tremendous defense. And while the Jets’ big news of the offseason was their trade of safety Jamal Adams to Seattle, for a package including two first-round picks, they also remade their offensive line. Both teams have young quarterbacks in a critical phase of development. It is time for Allen and Sam Darnold to fulfill expectations.

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Then there’s the young quarterback who may be most deserving of attention. Before a right hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture last November for Alabama, Tagovailoa was believed to be a shoo-in for the No. 1 pick. While he fell to fifth, he still has elite potential. If the lefty is ready to get on the field this year and lead the Dolphins and their developing base of talent, then perhaps Miami can finally make the AFC East race interesting.

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BEST-CASE SCENARIO: After completing an uneventful, noncompetitive regular season, Newton accelerates into the playoffs with the scariest New England offense in a decade. Opponents focus on the mobile quarterback, which provides a boost to the receiving corps, led by an improved N’Keal Harry, who shows why he was a 2019 first-round pick.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Newton never fully recovers from offseason Lisfranc surgery, and the Patriots lurch in stops and starts between a creative, Newton-piloted offense and a more traditional system guided by Jarrett Stidham. With all the inconsistency, McDaniels’s attack struggles in ways it never did when Tom Brady was under center.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Allen grows from being a player who needs to be schemed for to one whose talents dictate the scheme. As he eliminates the disastrous, drive-killing throws and situational inaccuracy that plagued him during his first two seasons, he reminds people of Ben Roethlisberger. The defense, meanwhile, remains as punishing as it was last year.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Allen flounders, following the Mark Sanchez career curve, which is surprising given that he’s being guided by talented coordinator Brian Daboll. The acquisition of WR Stefon Diggs gave this year a boom-or-bust quality, and instead of helping to stretch the field the ex-Viking becomes a symbol of misplaced confidence in Allen.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Jets come out of 2020 believing that they have their long-term answers at quarterback (Darnold) and left tackle (Mekhi Becton, their first-round pick from Louisville). Fans may not accept .500 as good news, especially given the polar opinions on coach Adam Gase, but last year he did win seven games with a highly flawed roster.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The offensive line fixes don’t take, and all the inner turmoil reportedly brewing around Gase boils over into a good old-fashioned New York media sideshow. While Gase has ownership’s confidence and is tied to new GM Joe Douglas, who recently signed a long-term extension, the ever-reactionary Jets get jumpy as the losses pile up.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Miami dominates defensively and rides the unpredictable magic of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to a division title. Yes, these Dolphins have the talent to get hot and shock the field. An entirely different scenario: Tagovailoa takes over for Fitzpatrick at midseason, and Miami’s new-look offense immediately puts opponents on their heels.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The rebuild shows signs of souring early, and ownership pulls the plug too soon on a talented coaching staff. A note to Miami higher-ups: You’ve succeeded where others have failed by finding a former Patriots assistant, Flores, who can win for you. Don’t blow it by firing him and handing back to New England a capable defensive mind.