Bob Christ's NFL division previews, this week AFC east

Jul 18, 2017 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of eight NFL division previews for the 2017-18 season.

Since the current NFL division alignments were created in 2002, there has been no heavier division favorite than this year’s New England Patriots in the AFC East, having held steady at 1-to-14

It marks the seventh year in a row the Patriots have been the odds-on choice to win the loop, and they’ve cashed in each of the previous six times en route to setting an NFL record with eight straight crowns.

New England, which has a listed win expectancy of 12.5, isn’t devoid of blemishes, but its pursuers in the East probably will not be able to take advantage. Miami, Buffalo and the NY Jets figure to bring up the distant rear, with none having a win total expectancy exceeding 7. And with the exception of last season when the Dolphins landed the final wild card with a furious finish, the East dregs have stayed home for the playoffs since 2011.

But all hope shouldn’t be lost. Before this season, the heaviest choice since 2002 in any division were the 2008 Patriots at 1-to-9. Their season began unraveling, relatively speaking, in Week 1 when QB Tom Brady went down with a season-ending knee injury and the Dolphins, at 25/1, edged out the Patriots in a tiebreaker at 11/5. That Miami team, coming off a one-win season, was the biggest longshot to win a loop the past 15 years.

Now to take a stab at forecasting the division, with the odds courtesy of the Westgate Las Vegas.

1. NEW ENGLAND (1/14 div; 3-1 SB): Over the past six seasons, the Patriots have been a cumulative 54 games over .500 while their East enemies were a collective 32 games under. The gap just keeps getting bigger for a team that has never done worse than tie for the division lead since 2001.

In the offseason NE lost TE Martellus Bennett (Green Bay) and punishing RB LeGarrette Blount and his 18 TDs (Philly), but made a big offseason splash by acquiring Saints WR Brandin Cooks (78 catches, 15.0 norm).

And, of course, TE Rob Gronkowski returns after missing 11 games with a back injury. Even without Gronk, NE went 11-0 (11-0 ATS, too).

The Patriots also added a pair of ex-Bills in RB Mike Gillislie and standout DB Stephon Gilmore to boost their roster and deplete Buffalo’s. And then there’s Brady, who threw for 28 TDs and only two INTs in 12 regular-season games in 2016.

The defense, meanwhile, also measures up, yielding only 27 touchdowns during the season, second fewest in the NFL.

Note: In Week 15, NE will play at Pittsburgh on a short week after coming off a road game vs. Miami. The Steelers will be on normal rest off a home game against Baltimore. It’s one of only three games this year in which a road MNF team plays away from home the week before facing a team that was coming off a home game and having a full-week’s rest.

2. BUFFALO (16/1, 100/1 SB): Will this be the year the Bills end their 17-year playoff drought, tied for fifth longest in league history? After the Rex Ryan regime accomplished little in two years, now it’s time for rookie boss Sean McDermott. He worked for more than a decade under Andy Reid in Philadelphia and guided Carolina’s defense in Super Bowl 50.

Tyrod Taylor is back at QB, and why not? Over the past two seasons, he’s thrown for 37 TDs with only 12 INTs. Last season he also added six rushing TDs and seven runs of 20-plus yards – three more than any other QB. This guy, in his seventh year, is instant offense. His major drawback being sacked a league leading 42 times.

He’ll be relying heavily on the return of WR Sammy Watkins, who missed eight games in 2016 (foot).

Then there’s Shady McCoy, whose norm of 5.4 a carry was best for 1,000-yard rushers last season (1,267). Defensively, a key to the Bills’ playoff hopes could well be how they adjust from a 3-4 to 4-3 alignment.

Note: The Bills’ were 1-6 vs. teams bound for the playoffs last year, beating only host New England in Week 4, 16-0, when the Patriots were using third-string QB Jacoby Brissett, who was playing hurt.

3. MIAMI (8/1, 40/1 SB): The Dolphins came on like gangbusters in the second third of last season, going 9-2 after a 1-4 start that had then-rookie boss Adam Gase cranking up the discipline. That has given Dolphin Nation, if there is such a thing, high hopes for 2017.

However, with the exception of a 30-15 home win over Pittsburgh as a 7.5-point dog in Week 6, the Dolphins and upstart RB Jay Ajayi (three 200-yard games) feasted on teams with non-winning records and feeble run defenses. Against top-10 rush defenses, Ajayi had a norm of 3.4 yards on 66 carries in five outings.

On the other side, Miami’s ground defense ranked 30th, holding only three foes below their season average. The team’s yield of 4.8 yards a carry matched the worst for a playoff team the past four years. Much improvement is not expected.

There also have to be questions about how well QB Ryan Tannehill comes back from a knee injury that cost him the final four games. Since mobility is one of his big attributes, it will be interesting to see if he remains elusive.

Note: Last season Miami’s offense was on the field for a league-low 912 snaps, its defense having 1,088, the second most. That 176-play discrepancy was the second worst for any team the past six seasons.

4. NY JETS (100/1, 200/1 SB): The Jets’ offseason fire sale (WRs Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, LB Davis Harris and his team-best 113 tackles) has doomed this franchise, which plummeted from 10-6 in 2015 to 5-11 last year. Their odds to win this loop are twice as high as any other team in any division since 2002.

Unless head coach Todd Bowles turns to inexperienced QBs Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg, it’s going to be Josh McCown. What a perfect fit he’d be, having gone 2-20 as a starter the previous three years with the Bucs and Browns.

Note: To give themselves even a remote chance of being relevant the Jets need to start scoring off returns. They had one such score the past three years, which matches an NFL futility record set by Washington (1958-1960) and matched by the original Browns (1979-1981. By contrast, Philadelphia has 23 such scores since 2014.

Next week: NFC East