Sports

Firn ’16: Patriots’ divisonal rivals closing the gap in AFC East

By
Sports Columnist
Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Since 2001, the New England Patriots have made six trips to the Super Bowl. In that same period of time, all other AFC East teams have made eight playoff appearances in total. Read that again.

New England’s perch atop the AFC East has been as secure as they come in the world of sports. But in what almost seems like a coordinated effort between jealous younger siblings, the Patriots’ division rivals are beefing up this offseason to take down their more successful brother. More than a few of Adam Schefter’s news-breaking tweets have focused on major moves coming out of Buffalo, New York and Miami this offseason. The AFC East’s constituents are hoping to finally dig a few potholes in the Patriots’ otherwise unobstructed road to the playoffs.

Count new Bills coach Rex Ryan among those who believe the AFC East is due for a change in hierarchy: “I believe the rest of the division really has gotten stronger,” while the Patriots “don’t look as strong as they did.” Ryan has never been known for his bashfulness, but on paper he’s right. The Patriots have undoubtedly lost a number of impact players. Their division rivals have undeniably reloaded. Despite renewed confidence from the Super Bowl, Pats fans are looking over their shoulders in the East for the first time in recent memory.

In short, here’s how the Jets, Dolphins and Bills have shaken things up so far.

New York:

Entering the offseason, the Jets had a problem at cornerback. Inking Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine is quite the solution. I want to be mad that Revis spurned the Patriots, but in a league with such short career spans and very little guaranteed money, it’s pretty unreasonable to admonish a player for chasing max money. As former lineman Damien Woody explains, “they don’t take legacy at the cash register.” On the other hand, $70 million buys quite a bit.

On offense, the Jets traded for journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick to compete with Geno Smith for the starting quarterback spot. At the very least, Fitzpatrick will bring an element of grizzled, if uninspiring, veteran leadership to a position that has been perennially in flux for New York. The Jets smartly bought low on Brandon Marshall, whose dominant possession skills should complement Eric Decker’s athleticism on the outside. Whoever is under center for the Jets in 2015 will be throwing to a formidable pair of wide receivers.

Miami:

The Dolphins made the biggest splash of the offseason by winning the sweepstakes for the league’s undisputed top free agent. Say what you want about the generous contract and the locker room impact, but Ndamukong Suh is a once-in-a-generation football talent. Even for the whopping price tag of $114 million, it’s understandably tough to pass on the prospect of a defensive line anchored by Suh, Cameron Wake and Dion Jordan. By signing Jordan Cameron and swapping out Mike Wallace for the younger and cheaper Kenny Stills, the Dolphins have also added impact players on offense. Still, Suh has rightfully dominated the headlines in Miami.

Buffalo:

Buffalo’s offseason began by bringing defensive-minded coach Rex Ryan into the fold of an already stout defensive unit that just re-signed edge rusher Jerry Hughes. Ryan’s presence should energize one of the NFL’s most forgotten franchises right away.

Ryan’s offenses almost always feature a workhorse lead back. By pulling off a stunning swap with the Eagles, Ryan got his prized chess piece in elite running back LeSean McCoy. Along with wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin — who was signed after being released by the Jets — McCoy adds an element of explosive playmaking to a suddenly intriguing offensive arsenal. Newly acquired quarterback Matt Cassel isn’t exactly oozing upside, but he provides consistency and game management to a squad that figures to rely largely on its defensive prowess to win games.

So yeah, on paper, these teams got better. An influx of talent may have reinvigorated the competitive landscape of the AFC East. But here’s why the Patriots will still destroy them all on the march toward another division crown: Football isn’t played on paper, and games aren’t won in March. There’s a reason the best teams never shell out big bucks for the best players — if a free agent has been around long enough to hit the market and make a name for himself, he’s likely entering the decline phase of his career. So while the Jets, Dolphins and Bills of the world generate buzz by handing out multi-year contracts to aging stars that eat up cap space, New England sticks to its system of long-term roster construction. You can’t argue with the track record. Coach Bill Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt.

One day, Tom Brady and Belichick will retire, and the race for AFC East supremacy will once again be subject to the cyclical forces of competition. But until then, the East is ours. In Bill we trust.


Mike Firn ’16 knows that this is why everyone hates Pats fans. Berate his arrogance at michael_firn@brown.edu.