Patriots still have no real challenger in the AFC East

Jul 24, 2018 3:01 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of eight 2018 NFL division previews.

There is no division/conference in any of the major sports the past 50 years that has had less year-to-year volatility atop the standings than the AFC East. That is highly unlikely to change in 2018.

The defending AFC champion New England Patriots enter the season as the odds-on choice in the East for the eighth straight year with a win expectancy of 11 games, which is 4.5 better than the closest rival (Miami 6.5).

The Patriots are on a record-setting NFL roll with nine consecutive loop titles, winning last year by four games. During this run of dominance New England’s record is 80 games over .500. The rest of the division – Miami, Buffalo, NY Jets – have posted a cumulative mark of 49 games under.

Not that there aren’t cracks forming in the Patriots’ foundation after their Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia. In the offseason, there was chatter Coach Bill Belichick was soon to turn over the reins to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Then there was QB Tom Brady being more concerned with traveling the world than offseason team workouts.

TE Rob Gronkowski took his sweet time before deciding he was all in for his ninth season. Not to mention the loss of several key contributors. In summary, barring a crushing injury to Brady, New ­England should be able to wade through this division with ease and earn a ninth straight first-round playoff bye. And if one of the three East dregs can sweep the other two, maybe that squad can get in the wild-card chase.

Anyway, here is how the loop should play out, The odds/win expectancy numbers are provided by the Westgate LV SuperBook:

1. New England (1-7 to win division, 6-1 to win Super Bowl): The only team with single-digit odds to win the Super Bowl, is by far the heaviest favorite among all division front-runners, but not nearly as heavy as in 2017 when NE was a 1-25 pick. As usual, though, the Patriots will be dealing with plenty of roster turnover.

Among those who have departed are clutch WR Danny Amendola, speedy 1,000-yard WR Brandin Cooks, RB Dion Lewis (5.0 yards a rush), OLT Nate Solder and CB Malcolm Butler, the guy who was controversially benched for the Super Bowl. But since Brady always seems to make even the most ordinary receivers special, have no fear. He’ll get back favorite WR target Julian Edelman from injury and get to work with a pair of newcomers – fleet Cordarrelle Patterson and Jordan Matthews. Available to fill Lewis’ cleats are rookie Sony Michel, who averaged 7.9 yards a rush at Georgia last season, and ex-Bengal Jeremy Hill.

Defensively, the return from injury of LB Dont’a Hightower, who missed the second half of last season, should make a world of difference. But for sure they’ll need to find a capable replacement for Solder, or Brady could be throwing more off his back foot.

Note: As if the Patriots need any kind of added edge, they are tied with Houston for the easiest schedule in the league based on their foes’ win expectancy.

2. NY Jets (12-1 div, 80-1 SB): The Jets were absurd 100-1 shots last season merely to win the division, by far the highest odds for any team to win a loop in the current format dating to 2002. But after an uplifting (for them) 5-11 season and some nice acquisitions they have a shot at an upper-tier division finish but are still miles from appearing in New England’s rearview mirror.

In the draft, they got their QB of the future (again) in USC’s Sam Darnold, who at some point this year should take over for journeyman Josh McCown (23-50 in his 15-year career). New York also bolstered its run game with Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland’s leading rusher the past three seasons, to join flashy WR Robby Anderson, who faces possible discipline for his recent reckless driving episode.

On defense, the addition of key free-agent CB Trumaine Johnson should boost that unit.

Note: The Jets have one special teams/defensive touchdown the past four years. By contrast, the Eagles have had 29 in that span.

3. Miami (10-1/80-1): The Dolphins get back QB Ryan Tannehill after he missed the past 20 games with a knee injury. He’ll take over a team that went 6-10 last year. But Miami had major losses this offseason with the departures of three Pro Bowlers – DT Ndamukong Suh, WR Jarvis Landry and center Mike Pouncey. This occurred after all but giving away starting RB Jay Ajayi at midseason 2017, who then helped Philly win the title.

Tannehill is only 37-40 in his career and he’s 30 years old, so chances are he’s not going to carry this team. But he’ll get help from Penn State rookie TE Mike Gesecki (6-6, 249), who has received high marks.

Note: In Weeks 14-16, the Dolphins face the meat grinder portion of their schedule, with games against 2017 conference finalists New England, Minnesota (on road) and Jacksonville, who were a combined 36-12 last season.

4. Buffalo (12-1/80-1): Although the Bills ended a 17-year playoff drought by earning a wild-card berth last season, their route to the playoffs was decidedly soft. They went 7-1 vs. teams with double-digit losses and, counting a 10-3 loss at Jacksonville in the postseason, went 2-7 against teams that were 7-9 or better.

The Bills unloaded starting QB Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland and replaced him with Cincinnati backup AJ McCarron (2-1 in three career starts) and first-round draft choice Josh Allen from Wyoming, who faced only three Power 5 teams in his college career going 0-3 with two TDs and eight interceptions.

Then there’s the continuing legal saga of RB Shady McCoy, who was involved in a nightclub incident three off-seasons ago and now is the focus of domestic violence allegations. Even if he is cleared down the road, this still should weigh on his mind. Plus, he lost two of his best offensive linemen to retirement and another to a trade.

Note: The Bills are the only team the past two seasons to have to play five road games the first seven weeks so a slow start is to be expected, especially with back-to-backs in Minnesota and Green Bay for Weeks 3-4.

Next week: NFC North