Until last season, the AFC East operated at a familiar rhythm. The Patriots, led by quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, won 16 of 20 division titles. They made whatever changes were required from year to year and sprinted ahead early, leaving the other teams to trip over themselves in an effort to catch up.
The division snapped out of its trance in 2020 as New England, sans Brady, faltered and the Bills finally maximized their potential. Buffalo’s ascendance—not to mention an impressive rebuild in Miami, led by coach Brian Flores—will extend the disruption of the old status quo. For the first time in ages, three teams (sorry, Jets) are capable of winning the division.
Buffalo is the obvious front-runner now that 25-year-old Josh Allen has transformed from a raw quarterback prospect into an MVP candidate. The journey had its share of speed bumps, but once coordinator Brian Daboll found a way to create a matchup spread offense that maximized both Allen’s mobility and his cannon arm, the Bills were able to keep defenses on their heels. In his first season in Buffalo, Stefon Diggs solidified himself as a true No. 1 wideout who can succeed against coverages designed to stop him.
The Patriots, after finishing 7–9 last year—their first losing season since 2000—could bounce back after capitalizing on a depressed free-agent market and signing wide receivers (Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor), top-tier tight ends (Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith) and one of the more versatile pass rushers on the market (Matthew Judon). New England also drafted Alabama quarterback Mac Jones at No. 15 and Crimson Tide defensive tackle Christian Barmore at No. 38, addressing two significant areas of need. After a handful of preseason starts, Jones looked entirely capable of piloting the Patriots’ offense, delivering accurate balls on time without many of the typical, frantic rookie mistakes. The Pats also get back a raft of defensive starters who opted out of the 2020 season, including inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Under Flores, the Dolphins finally took the time to nip bad habits and mediocre practices and are now pouring resources into developing QB Tua Tagovailoa as quickly as possible. The No. 5 pick of 2020 debuted with a thud last year and found himself sidelined repeatedly for backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa has a high ceiling, but he could be looking over his shoulder again this year after Miami signed capable backup Jacoby Brissett, who is familiar with coordinator George Godsey’s offense. While Tagovailoa’s potential may be greater than any quarterback in the division, there is no telling whether he will mesh with the offense and play more confidently this season.
New York has a new coach, former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Not only is he a gregarious personality and sound defensive leader, but he has also brought in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who helped build the explosive system now being run in San Francisco, Tennessee and Green Bay. If the new coaching staff can lift talented rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick from BYU, to immediate capability, the Jets could turn some heads. Otherwise New York, coming off five losing seasons, would be the one team in the division that performs its familiar role.
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. BILLS (11–6)
Best Case: The Bills expand on last year’s offense, perhaps adding an additional weapon during the early season via trade. This diversifies the looks they put on film last year, and they score even more—a feat, considering last year’s unit was No. 2 in the NFL. Buffalo becomes a real Super Bowl contender.
Worst Case: New England retakes the division by solving the Bills’ offense. Belichick, who has been practicing against what is basically Buffalo’s scheme every summer for the last two decades, defends it better in 2021 with the pieces he has added thanks to free-agent signings and the return of COVID-19 opt-outs.
2. PATRIOTS (11–6, Wild-Card)
Best Case: The offense begins to resemble the best of what it was under Tom Brady: efficient and not self-defeating. Jones doesn’t undergo many of the rookie struggles that take place when a quarterback’s collegiate tendencies are discovered by NFL coaches. He is, instead, protected by a scheme that rewards decision making and accuracy.
Worst Case: The Patriots’ free-agency splurge proves to be an accurate reflection of their desperation, a sign that the roster is fading, paper thin and ultimately punchless without Brady. Jones begins to look frantic. Injuries expose deficiencies on the offensive line and in the secondary.
3. DOLPHINS (9–8)
Best Case: Tagovailoa, in his second NFL season and now well-removed from the brutal hip injury that ended his college career, develops into a top-15 starter. As he gains confidence, he plays much more freely, the way he showed he could against the Cardinals in his second start last year, in Week 8.
Worst Case: The Dolphins once again shuffle between Tagovailoa and his backup, now Brissett, which overshadows the progress of their defense and wastes the rookie season of WR Jaylen Waddle, the No. 6 pick from Alabama. Fans rue Miami’s choice of Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert in the 2020 draft.
4. JETS (5–12)
Best Case: Eight wins would be miraculous given the state of the roster. New York fans are optimistic, though, after the team hangs close in games it would have been blown out in last year, and rookie QB Wilson throws twice as many TDs as interceptions while his mechanics remain sound.
Worst Case: The Jets are unable to run their new Kyle Shanahan–style offense effectively. This means that Wilson, who was afforded ample time in the pocket at BYU, plays under constant pressure and, like so many New York QBs before him, develops bad habits as losses continue to mount.
More Division Previews:
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best