With the departure of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay, this year seems to be the window for other AFC East teams to earn a division title. In a conference where the New England Patriots have won 11 straight division titles, there has not been a lot of opportunity for the other teams in the division to come out on top. With the Patriots’ prolific quarterback not being able to reach a new deal with the team, this could be as good an opportunity as any for a new division champion to reign over the AFC East.
Other Teams in the Division
The way I see it, there is only one legitimate contender to challenge the New England Patriots this season.
The New York Jets suffered two major blows this offseason. The losses of Robby Anderson and Jamal Adams do not make things any better for an already struggling team. While the team has decent momentum, having ended the season 7-9 after a 1-7 start, the loss of potentially their two best players may be too much to overcome. The Jets will look to free-agent signing Breshad Perriman and 2nd round pick Denzel Mims to make up for the loss of Anderson. On top of that, the Jets continue to neglect their offensive line, making the task that much more difficult for Darnold, despite his talent. On defence, Adams is much harder to replace, especially given the fact that linebacker CJ Mosley has opted out due to the Covid-19 pandemic. If I had to bet, the ceiling for the Jets seems mediocre at best in 2020. They will not challenge the Patriots this season.
The Dolphins are a much-improved team. With a great draft and an even better free-agency period, the Dolphins are poised to improve on their record from last season. Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Howard, Matt Breida, Ereck Flowers, Austin Jackson, Kyle Van Noy, Byron Jones and Noah Igbinoghene highlight the new faces in Miami this year. Brian Flores has also shown flashes. After going 0-7, Flores led the team to a 5-11 finish including impressive wins against New England and Philidelphia, both playoff teams. Despite all of these things, the number of holes on that Dolphins team in 2019 was staggering, so while they had a great run down the stretch, and have had a great offseason, I still see them as a rebuilding team. The likelihood of them challenging the New England Patriots is higher than that of New York, but still low in my opinion.
The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, seem to be the most likely contender to challenge New England. If Josh Allen continues to make strides, the Bills seem poised to do great things this year, especially since their first four games are against non-playoff teams. The arrival of Stefon Diggs and rookie RB Zach Moss look to compliment John Brown and Devin Singletary, giving Josh Allen a ton of weapons to work with. Defensively, Tre’Davious White and Tremaine Edmunds look to lead a unit full of solid players and build off of a great performance last year where they ranked 10th in total defence. the Bills are also the only team in the division not called the Patriots who have recent playoff experience. Last year the Bills went to the playoffs with a 10-6 record even with Tom Brady still in the division. the Bills have only gotten better and will challenge the Patriots for a division title this year.
It is no secret that the 2019 New England Patriots were a defensive football team. Through week 8 last year, the Patriots were 8-0, but they would have been 5-3 even if their offence did not score a single point. Looking at the offence in a vacuum, however, we saw a struggling offensive line, a sub-par running game, and a unit that was desperate for a wide receiver to make a play.
This offseason, though, New England’s offence has quietly improved. While he’s not Tom Brady, the Patriots replaced their former signal-caller with a former MVP, Cam Newton. Newton may be a shell of his 2015 MVP form, but his dynamic skillset and huge arm give New England a chance to become a much-improved offence different from the ‘dink and dunk’ approach we’ve seen in the past. In terms of receivers, N’Keal Harry is poised for a great season after missing almost his entire rookie campaign due to an ankle injury. Julian Edelman will continue to be consistent and Damiere Byrd looks to add a dynamic deep threat to compliment Cam Newton’s huge arm. With Isaiah Wynn and David Andrews look to solidify the offensive line after a season where both were injured, as well. Rookie tight ends David Asiasi and Dalton Keene look to add production from the tight end position that has been sorely lacking since Gronkowski’s departure from the team.
Overall, I’m not worried about the offence. If there’s anything I have learned from years of watching the Patriots dynasty it’s that they always find a way, especially on offence. I’ve seen them do well with less.
Defensively, the Patriots are coming off of a year where Stephon Gilmore led the unit to a dominant season. Covid-19 has taken a huge toll on the defence, however. With SS Patrick Chung and MLB Dont’a Hightower both opting out, New England will be missing two of the cornerstones on their defensive unit.
It will be hard to make up for those two major losses, and I am not sure whether or not Kyle Dugger, the 2nd round pick out of Lenoir-Rhyne (a division 2 school), will be able to contribute in any meaningful way this year. The learning curve is already big enough for players coming from a Power-5 school, so it stands to reason that Dugger is more of a project. Eventually, he could become the kind of versatile safety that the NFL has started to value as of late, but for this year, he might not be ready.
The addition of Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche should help to mitigate the loss of Hightower and Van Noy, but again, the likelihood of a rookie (or two) filling the shoes of a pro-bowler and an experienced veteran is low. While Uche and Jennings were both great in college, it’s tough to see them making 150+ tackles that the defence will be missing this year due to Van Noy’s departure and Hightower’s decision to opt-out.
Overall, the defence will not be bad. The drop off won’t be first to worst or anything like that. That being said, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly concerned because of the Covid-19 opt-outs.
The way people are talking, you’d think Tom Brady is the difference between New England going 12-4 and going 4-12. This simply isn’t the case. A single player does not make a dynasty.
In 2008, Tom Brady was injured in the season opener, and Matt Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. They did not make the playoffs, but in any other year, an 11-5 record would be more than enough to qualify. If the Patriots have the same record this year, I will not be surprised. The drop off will not be as bad as everybody thinks, especially if Cam Newton can regain at least a piece of his 2015 form.
Bill Belichick is the best coach of all time. He will figure it out on defence and if he can go 11-5 with Matt Cassel, I’m willing to bet that he can do the same, if not better, with Cam Newton.
Not to worry, Patriots fans. The Dynasty is far from over.