For the second straight year, coach Sean McDermott’s Buffalo Bills are the odds-on choice to win the AFC East.
Last season the Bills came through, finishing 13-3 and three games clear of second-place Miami, to earn the second seed in the conference playoffs. They were the only AFC team to go 6-0 in its division.
But over the past six seasons, there has been at least one odds-on division choice in the league not to win its loop, including last year’s San Francisco 49ers. They wound up last in the NFC West. In both 2015 and 2018, three heavy favorites failed to take division honors.
The biggest stunner in the NFL over the past 20 seasons occurred in 2008, when the Patriots finished second in the AFC East (on a tiebreaker) despite being a 1-9 choice.
AFC East Odds DraftKings William Hill BetMGM
Buffalo -150/+1200 -154/+1300 -154/+1200
Miami +325/+3000 -340/+3000 +350/+3000
New England +350/+3300 +350/+3000 +350/+3000
NY Jets +2000/+10000 +2200/+10000 +2000/+12500
The 1st-Place Choice: Buffalo Bills
Not only do the Bills have one of the best offenses in the league, scoring franchise-record 501 points in 2020, but also the easiest schedule in the East based on their foes’ estimated victory totals.
QB Josh Allen finished second in league MVP voting last year and quickly meshed with WR Stefon Diggs, who led the league with 127 receptions and 1,535 yards. Just as impressive, he caught 76.5 of targeted throws compared with career norm of 68.4 percent with Minnesota from 2015-19. The pair helped Buffalo give six of its opponents their most lopsided loss of the season, a league high. Three were playoff teams.
And, if by chance Allen becomes unavailable (COVID, injury) the team has a playoff-savvy backup in ex-Bear Mitch Trubisky, a great leap from Matt Barkley.
The run game, though, will have to show more if the Bills are going to match the potent attack of AFC king Kansas City. The Bills had only one rush of 40-plus yards last year.
And applause for a Bills team that didn’t yield a defensive/special teams score against last year, one of only four teams to with a clean sheet.
On defense, the heart of the unit, LB Matt Milano, signed an extension and joins Pro Bowl CB Tre’Davious White. And the pass rush should get a boost from DEs taken in the first two rounds of the draft — Miami’s Greg Rousseau and Wake Forest’s Boogie Basham.
Note: The Bills will face three teams off extended rest after having played a Thursday night game, tied for league high. Also, the Bills will meet defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay on the road in Week 14 on short rest off a MNF game vs. the Patriots.
No. 2 New England Patriots
There’s a lot to like about this year’s Patriots, whose record-setting run of consecutive division titles ended at 11 last season with a 7-9 mark. It also was the first time since 2000 New England didn’t at least tie for the division lead.
It didn’t help they had a league-high eight players opt-out in 2020, including LB Dont’a Hightower. He’s back now along with a bevy of free-agent signings that made headlines this offseason.
The key training camp duel will be between veteran QB Cam Newton and first-round draft pick Mac Jones out of Alabama. It’s highly likely Newton will open the season in charge while White absorbs the playbook.
Newton wasn’t exactly awful last season. Before his COVID episode in late September, he almost led NE to a 3-0 start, coming up short on the last play run from Seattle’s 1-yard line in Week 2 in 35-30 defeat. He wasn’t the same after that virus break. Now he’ll have an offseason working with the team and even getting more time to heal his injured shoulder.
The addition of two solid TEs in ex-Charger Hunter Henry and ex-Titan Jonnu Smith will help. And RBs Damien Harris and Sony Michel both averaged 5-plus yards per carry last year.
Defensively, standout DBs Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson (nine INTs in 2020) headline a unit that held a league-high five enemy QBs to their worst game of the season (based on passer rating), including NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert of the Chargers. Plus, ex-Ravens LB Matt Judon was added to combat the run.
Note: The Patriots have back-to-back games in Weeks 6 and 7 against teams off a bye, at home against the Jets and then at the LA Chargers. The Chargers game is one of only two leaguewide in which an eastern team has to travel west across three time zones to face such a rested team.
No. 3 Miami Dolphins
Miami, which went 5-11 in 2019, was on the brink of earning a playoff berth last year until being gashed in Buffalo in the season finale, 56-26. The Dolphins finished 10-6 and were the only team with double-digit wins not to make the tournament the past five years.
This season their hopes hinge largely on the maturation of second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa, who was 6-3 last season after taking over the starter’s role at midseason — but not without bullpen help from now-departed Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The team added a pair of receiving weapons to aid Tagovailoa’s development in speedy ex-Houston Texan Will Fuller V and first-round draft pick Jaylen Waddle, a former teammate of Tua at Alabama. Maybe they’ll help him improve on his 6.3-yard norm per throw, which ranked 30th last season.
But the running game should suffer yet again behind a very young and somewhat ineffective offensive line.
CB Xavien Howard, who had a league-best 10 INTs in 2020, heads an overachieving defense that generated an NFL-best 29 takeaways last year but ranked only 20th overall.
Note: In one of the cruelest scheduling injustices, the Dolphins will face Jacksonville in London in Week 6 and then play host the next week to Atlanta, which will be off a bye. There will be two games in London this year, and only Miami doesn’t get a week off afterward.
No. 4 NY Jets
The Jets are in a major rebuild after going 2-14, including losing their first 13 games, with the offense finishing at the bottom of the yardage chart for a second consecutive season. The last team to do so three straight years was the expansion Browns (1999-2001).
Head coach Adam Gase is gone, as well as the offensive and defensive coordinators, and the team gave up on QB Sam Darnold, who’s now in Carolina.
Ex-49ers defensive boss Robert Saleh is one of seven rookie head coaches in the league this year and pinning his offensive hopes on new QB Zach Wilson, the second overall selection in the 2021 draft out of BYU.
He has been said to be a questionable early pick based on his soft college schedule, meaning he’ll need time to adjust to the pro game. Much the same was said of Buffalo’s Allen when he was taken in the first round out of Wyoming in 2018. He had by far the league’s worst completion percentage his rookie year (52.8), but two years later had the Bills one step from the Super Bowl.
Note: It was only 10 years ago the Colts also started 0-13 en route to a 2-14 mark. The next season (2012) Indianapolis went 11-5 and was a wild-card team.
Favorite Futures Wager
The Patriots to win the Super Bowl. But don’t wait till midseason to wager, since New England seems to be set up to have a fast start.
In the first seven weeks the Patriots will take on the Jets twice, crumbling Houston and a New Orleans team in Week 3 while it adjusts to life without QB Brees.
Only two of those first seven are on the road.
The second of the four conference division previews will be the AFC North.