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They really should consider renaming this division to “The Patriots and the Three Other Teams Division.” New England’s dominance (15 division crowns in the last 16 seasons) is on another level. It will be no different in 2018. In fact, the division is so bad, that the final standings could end up producing the biggest disparity in league history. The Pats will be great (by default) and the other three teams will fight each other off to avoid renting the basement apartment. It’s bad, folks. But let’s talk more about it.
1. New England Patriots
2017 record: 13-3
2018 Projection: 12-4
Try to act surprised, but the Patriots made the Super Bowl again last season, but this time finished as the runner-up. Flip the page to 2018 and this offseason produced some major losses and even some minor inferences to potential cracks in the Brady-Belichick foundation. The departures of Pats mainstays Malcolm Butler, Nate Solder, Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola and Cameron Fleming leave huge holes in the roster. Holes that can’t be simply replaced by Jordan Matthews, Adrian Clayborn and Jeremy Hill, who joined the team. Even Julian Edelman is suspended. Can Belichick make it all work? Likely. But this team on paper, just doesn’t seem to have that perennial “Super Bowl or bust” edge. They appear vulnerable this time around and are ever so fortunate that their division is complete garbage, easily the worst in football. You could wager your children that the playoffs are a lock, but we also shouldn’t be surprised if this team has an earlier exit than usual once the competition tightens up.
Best case scenario: The Pats just continue to do what they have been groomed to do, no matter what the roster composition is. With Brady and Belichick still cemented, they continue to roll. Realistically, the division alone should produce a minimum of five wins, although a six-game sweep of the Dolphins, Jets and Bills is more likely.
Worst case scenario: Tom Brady getting decapitated would be about the only thing preventing this team from winning at least 10 games and the AFC East by a landslide.
Bottom line: The Pats won’t be challenged en route to winning the division for the 15th time in 16 seasons, secure a Bye in the first round of the playoffs, but will ultimately fall short of the Super Bowl due to their lack of depth on both sides of the ball. Brady and Belichick will NOT be amused.
2. New York Jets
2017 record: 5-11
2018 Projection: 5-11
Let’s be real here, the New York Jets surprised the football universe by cranking out FIVE wins in 2017. However, if there’s one thing the team has on their side coming into 2018 that they haven’t had in years, it’s quarterback depth. Josh McCown had an excellent 2017 season, at age 38. Teddy Bridgewater signed on after leaving Minnesota and having not played in 2017. His return will be something to monitor. And the team drafted Sam Darnold with the 3rd overall pick in the ’17 Draft. As to which one will start Week 1, that’s anyone’s guess at the moment. But it’s certainly a nice (and infrequent) problem to have. The team also addressed the depth of their skill positions by adding backs Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls and receiver Terrelle Pryor. The offense won’t be half bad. It’s the defense that will curse this team, particular their lack of a pass rush. Lorenzo Mauldin, who led the team with only 5 sacks, left for greener pastures in New Orleans. On paper, they have a solid young core in the secondary, but without pressure up front, their utility won’t be maximized.
Best case scenario: One of guys that comprise the three-headed quarterback monster has a eye-popping preseason, takes a stranglehold on the starting gig and then transitions it smoothly into the regular season, where the offense becomes one of the better ones in the AFC. On defense, the production of the front seven equalizes that of the secondary and the team skates by with a marginal defense. All inclusive, it would mean competing for a wild card spot, at very best.
Worst case scenario: McCown shows his age, Bridgewater shows his weak chin and Darnold shows is inexperience. Despite the depth, any talent on offense is wasted by poor quarterback play. The defense gets completely exposed up front and the secondary shows some inconsistent growing pains as well. Last place in the division is certainly not out of the question, as the Jets were overachievers last season in the first place.
Bottom line: Defensive inefficiencies aside, I actually think the Jets have more overall talent on their roster than both the Dolphins and Bills. Looking at their schedule, I just can’t find more than five wins, despite their offseason additions. But a young core seems to be slowly forming here and even though they won’t surpass last season’s win total, they should still finish ahead of the two squads outlined below.
3. Miami Dolphins
2017 record: 6-10
2018 Projection: 5-11
This Dolphins team comes into the ’18 season with a surplus of question marks. Can Ryan Tannehill stay healthy for an entire season? Can Kenyan Drake handle a full 16-game workload as the lead running back? Can Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson (being paid $8 million dollars!) replace the production of Jarvis Landry at wide receiver? Can the addition of Robert Quinn replace the departure Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line? Those are just four of the many. Adam Gase’s teams is one in transition and depending on how the season plays out at quarterback, it could finally time for a more earth-shattering shakeup. The Fins stumbled last year (remember, they were “forced” into signing Jay Cutler), and all signs point to a similar stumble in 2018.
Best case scenario: After missing the entire 2017 season, Tannehill reverts back to his 2014 form, Drake ends up breaking out bigger than Jay Ajayi did, the receivers don’t miss a beat and the defense unexpectedly produces a couple of diamonds in the rough, while the Dolphins make an improbably wild card bid.
Worst case scenario: Tannehill can’t shake the rust or can’t produce at previous levels and is eventually replaced at quarterback by… gulp… Brock Osweiler. We know what happens after that. Combined with that, the shoddy defense doesn’t improve on its 29th ranked Points Per Game average of 24.6 and the team bottoms out early.
Bottom line: I think the worst case scenario is closer to reality than the best case scenario. Even in a terrible division, Miami doesn’t stand out to me as the best team of the other three lumped together after the Pats. The jury is still out and might be until the final standings are completed. Expectations are demanding enough for the average quarterback, but when you haven’t played in a year, as in Tannehill’s case, they can become astronomical. There’s just too many gaps here to talk playoffs.
4. Buffalo Bills
2017 record: 9-7
2018 Projection: 3-13
That incredulous Bills Mafia would like you and I to be fully reminded that the team ended its 17-year playoff drought last season, even though their path to the postseason was paved with golden horseshoes and unicorn tears (thanks Cincinnati). No, really! In 2018, they’re going to need even MORE luck to get back to the playoffs, because this roster is well, it’s NOT good. Their projected futility has already been documented here. Instead of Tyrod Taylor (dealt to Cleveland), the quarterback position will be occupied by one of A.J. McCarron (who’s thrown exactly 133 passes in the league), Nathan Peterman (who’s infamously known for one of the worst halves in NFL history) or a rookie, Josh Allen (the determination is still to be made as to whether taking him 7th overall was a smart move). Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones might not be enough at receiver, while LeSean McCoy, still plenty productive the last couple of years, did turn 30 and faces his own potential legal distractions coming into the season. Defensively, the team has some solid playmakers in the secondary and up front, but have a depleted linebacker core. But overall, the biggest weakness by far is the decimated offensive line that projects to be about the worst in football. AND they begin the season with 5 of their first 7 games on the road. All of these factors spell disaster.
Best case scenario: It’s definitely murky. The McCarron/Peterman combination provide leadership and solid play while bridging to the future in Josh Allen. The dark cloud hanging over McCoy clears up and he doesn’t decline at 30 to have another stellar season, behind an offensive line that plays well over their heads. Sean McDermott also has the defense firing on all cylinders as new stars emerge from the middle, while the team crosses it’s collective fingers and makes a run at another wild card spot.
Worst case scenario: Under tumultuous circumstances, Josh Allen is forced into action far too early and we watch his big, (inaccurate) arm make mistakes. The offensive line performs as projected and McCoy has zero daylight to run the ball. The defense gets chewed up without anyone of impact in the middle unit. The team starts the season 0-8 and never recover.
Bottom line: With a 3-13 projection, it’s not a secret that I’m expecting the worst case scenario to play out here. Given there are several key positions in flux and the team’s expected inability to steal as many games as last season, 2018 won’t be a friendly one for Bills Mafia. Just don’t ask them.