For nearly two decades, the New England Patriots have ruled the AFC East. They’ve been virtually unbeatable in the division, winning 17 of the past 19 titles, including the last 11.

Aside from Coach Bill Belichick, the common denominator for that stretch of dominance was Tom Brady. He’s been the AFC East’s primary foil, tirelessly beating on division foes.

Let’s just say the Bills, Jets and Dolphins weren’t sad to see Brady’s 20-year run in New England come to an end. The GOAT will be in Tampa next season, terrorizing teams in the NFC South.

AFC East teams, meanwhile, are free of the straitjacket. They can now collectively get up off the mat, and give the Patriots a run.

With Brady’s departure, the chief advantage the Pats enjoyed for two decades no longer exists. As it is, the situation at quarterback for Belichick’s team is unsettled. Couple that uncertainty with heavy losses on defense, and the six-time Super Bowl champs look like they might finally fall back to earth.

The Bills, Jets and Dolphins are collectively licking their chops with a chance to dethrone the champs.

For the first time in a football generation, the Patriots appear vulnerable heading into the 2020 season. But it’s never a wise idea to bury a Belichick-coached team, no matter its flaws. There’s still a roomful of winners in Foxborough, led by Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman.

“I think if I was a fan and I watched the team and watched a guy for a long time and he left and he was so great, I would say that team is going to be terrible too,” McCourty said, referring to Brady’s departure during a conference call Wednesday. “That’s expected, but I think it’s our job as players to go out there and compete when we get the opportunity. I think, for us as a team, in my 10 years (in New England), that’s always going to be the thinking. I’m passionate about that, Slater, the coaching staff, so I don’t think that’s going to change.”

So with most of the major free-agent moves in the books, and the NFL draft still set to go toward the end of April, here’s how the division currently shapes up.

BUFFALO BILLS

2019 record: 10-6

Key additions: WR Stefon Diggs, DE Mario Addison, CB Josh Norman, LB A.J. Klein, DT Vernon Butler, DT Quinton Jefferson, LB Tyler Matakevich, RB Taiwan Jones, CB E.J. Gaines.

Key subtractions: DE Shaq Lawson, DT Jordan Phillips, LB Lorenzo Alexander, CB Kevin Johnson.

Outlook: The Bills were a playoff team last year. They got knocked out by the Texans during wild-card weekend. They were moving along just fine, dominating their hosts for most of the game. That is, until the game was on the line.

At that point, they completely unraveled; eventually losing in overtime. Sean McDermott’s decision-making was questionable, while second-year quarterback Josh Allen turned into a puddle in crunch time. The Bills just didn’t know how to seize the moment and win.

Can it be chalked up to a learning experience? Let’s just say if it isn’t, it won’t matter how much they’ve added. Right now, their hopes of grabbing the division basically ride on Allen, and if he’s able to turn the corner. He improved last year, but still has to remedy accuracy issues. He also needs to have more poise in big games.

The addition of a Pro Bowl playmaker in Diggs, who joins John Brown and Cole Beasley, gives Allen a more formidable receiving corps. Defensively, the Bills were one of the top units last season, allowing the second-fewest points. They have some new faces, and should continue to have a stellar unit. They remain a playoff-caliber team.

If they don’t get in their own way, the Bills should pass the Patriots in the division.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

2019 record: 12-4
Key Additions: QB Brian Hoyer, LB Brandon Copeland, DT Beau Allen, WR Damiere Byrd, S Adrian Phillips, FB Danny Vitale.

Key Losses: QB Tom Brady, LB Kyle Van Noy, LB Jamie Collins, LB Elandon Roberts, S Duron Harmon (via trade), DT Danny Shelton, C/G Ted Karras, S Nate Ebner, K Stephen Gostkowski (release).

Outlook: They own the NFL’s toughest schedule. They’ve lost five significant contributors on their defense. But worst of all, they’ve lost their chief difference-maker – Brady. On paper, it sure doesn’t appear all that promising for the Patriots. But we’ve seen and heard dire forecasts before. The Pats are in a semi-rebuild and don’t have Brady to bail them out of the major jams.

The key, of course, is what they get from the next quarterback. If Belichick was willing to surrender Brady without much of a fight, it would seem logical to assume he has some semblance of faith in Jarrett Stidham. Maybe that belief runs even deeper.

The bottom line here is if either Stidham, Hoyer or a quarterback behind Door No. 3 are competent, the Patriots won’t fall off the face of the earth. And if the Pats do a good job in the draft, something that’s escaped them in recent years, they’ll put up a fight. Their defense should still be formidable, because their secondary continues to rock behind Stephon Gilmore. So much like last season, Belichick will ride his defense to victories.

The schedule is a killer, but nine wins might get them a playoff spot, especially if another team gets in – that vote is coming soon and it is very likely to be approved.

“People are going to say that because Tom’s gone, the dynasty is over. They’re already burying us, far as I can tell. And that’s fine. Let ’em,” McCourty wrote on the Players’ Tribune. “We’ve never listened to the noise, and we’re not about to start now. But the task is definitely taller this coming year than it has been in years past. There’s more work to do. And it’s not gonna be so easy this time around.”

Especially with teams thinking they finally have a chance.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

2019 record: 5-11

Key additions: CB Byron Jones, LB Kyle Van Noy, G Ereck Flowers, RB Jordan Howard, DE Shaq Lawson, DE Emmanuel Ogbah, LB Elandon Roberts, C/G Ted Karras, LB Kamu Grugier-Hill, S Clayton Fejedelem.

Key subtractions: S Reshad Jones, C Daniel Kilgore.

Outlook: They weren’t expected to win many – if any – games last year. They wound up with five victories, none greater than the upset of the playoff-bound Patriots in the season finale. So with the momentum of a late-season surge and the infusion of better personnel, are they good enough to leap over the Pats in the division?

They’re closing in, but they’re still not there just yet.

Coach Brian Flores has started to make his imprint, and the results have the Dolphins headed in the right direction. And with money to spend, they’ve also had a great few weeks in free agency.

They’ve improved the defense across the board with ex-Pats Van Noy, Roberts and Grugier-Hill. They also have 14 draft picks in the 2020 draft. With the first of those picks, they’re expected to draft one of the top quarterbacks, likely Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. They still need a left tackle and tight end, but those answers are likely to come in the draft.

It’s not outlandish to think streaky Ryan Fitzpatrick can get the Fins a few more wins with a better cast around him.

NEW YORK JETS

2019 record: 7-9

Key additions: OT George Fant, C/G Connor McGovern, WR Breshad Perriman, G Greg Van Roten, S Marqui Christian, G Josh Andrews.

Key subtractions: WR Robby Anderson, LB Brandon Copeland, CB Darryl Roberts, OT Brandon Shell, CB Maurice Canaday.

Outlook: The Jets weren’t very good last year. It’s hard to see them being all that different.

Through free agency, they’ve revamped their offensive line with three new starters (Fant, McGovern, Van Roten), which was one of their goals. Sam Darnold was sacked 33 times, but that was only in 13 games. Pass protection wasn’t the only area of concern. The Jets also had the second-worst rush offense in the NFL. Much of that points back to the offensive line. So changes were needed, and made.

At receiver, they basically swapped Anderson for Perriman. The latter had been a bust, but had a decent year with the Bucs.

While the rebuilt offensive line should help, it’s hard to imagine that much of a bump for an offense that was second-worst in scoring in the NFL last year, and last in both yards per game and yards per play.

They were the Patriots’ punching dummy last season. They spooked Darnold in a Monday night game at MetLife Stadium, and it’s not crazy to think Belichick will have him seeing ghosts again.


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