For the past two decades, the safest bet in sports was for the to win their division. Not anymore.
The Patriots have owned the AFC East. Since the turn of the century, New England has won 17 AFC East titles. But with Tom Brady in Tampa, this division is as open as it has ever been.
The Bills are coming off a playoff appearance, the Dolphins are building a talented young team, the Jets are looking to prove they are better than last year’s record, and the Pats replaced their Super Bowl-winning QB with a former league MVP. Because of course they did.
The conference is not as top-heavy as it used to be. And there is a case to be made for every team but Miami to win the division this year.
2 / 7
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
Covid Response: No team has had more players opt out of the season than the Patriots. Stars like Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Marcus Cannon, and Marqise Lee are among the eight players choosing to stay home this year.
Outside The Lines: The Patriots drafted kicker Justin Rohrwasser in the fifth round of this year’s draft. After the draft, Rohrwasser was discovered to have a tattoo of a far-right group known as the “Three Percenters” on his arm. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Three Percenters are an “anti-government extremist group” that has grown in numbers since 2008. They are a militia who believe that their right to bear arms is under attack. Soon after folks discovered the logo on Rohrwasser’s arm, he removed the tattoo. On Saturday, Rohrwasser was cut by the Patriots at the end of training camp, but on Sunday he was added to the 16-player practice squad.
Oh, he’s here now?: The Patriots have a new QB1, and his name is Cam Newton. Cam was recently named starter and captain of this new-look team. So, without Brady, can you jump on the Pats bandwagon now? Absolutely not, says my colleague and Pats superfan Carron Phillips: “Hate us like you always have.” Yeah, well that shouldn’t be too hard.
Where’d he go?: The face of the franchise left Foxborough this summer, you may have heard of him. After 20 years in New England, Tom Brady will follow the lead of millions of Americans by retiring to Florida. Bradywill team up with former teammate Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay this season. Pats All-Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski and outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy both left New England too.
Fans in the stands: Per the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board, New England will not be able to host fans until October, at the earliest. If Gillette Stadium is able to host fans for the remainder of the season, the Patriots expect around 20 percent capacity.
What to expect: The Patriots have won every AFC East division title since 2009, a streak that could end this year. This will be a different New England team than the one you are used to seeing, mostly because of one guy. No team can upgrade from quarterback after losing Brady, but Cam is not a bad attempt at it. Something about the combination of Newton and Bill Belichick makes me think this team can stay atop the division, much to the chagrin of all Pats haters. But with a number of starters opting out and a weak receiving corps, I don’t see Belichick coaching his way to another division title.
3 / 7
New York Jets
New York Jets
Covid Response: C.J. Mosley, the Jets’ best linebacker and the team’s highest-paid player, has opted out of the 2020 season. He was scheduled to make $16 million this year. He already received $10 million in March by signing a roster bonus. But he will forgo the remaining $6 million in salary.
Outside The Lines: Last month, the New York Post was granted access to emails between a Jets employee and pro-cop group Blue Lives Matter for a proposed partnership. According to the emails, Blue Lives Matter turned the Jets down. As usual, the best move for the Jets is to have someone else tell them, “hey, that’s a really bad idea.”
Oh, he’s here now?: Not like Jets fans want him, but QB Joe Flacco will back up Sam Darnold this year. The Mayo Clinic says most people who get mononucleosis will only have it once. So unless Darnold gets physically injured, Flacco will get comfortable on that bench.
Where’d he go?: The top defensive players on the Jets are gone. As mentioned above, C.J. Mosley has opted out of the season and All-Pro strong safety Jamal Adams has been traded to Seattle.
Fans in the stands: Not yet. Like the Giants, the Jets will not play in front of a home crowd for the foreseeable future. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order over the summer that limits outdoor gatherings for the time being. Both teams will play in an empty MetLife Stadium until further notice, making the most bland venue in the NFL even more vanilla.
What to expect: The Jets went 7-9 last year but, by the end they looked better than their record. After losingtheir first four games and Darnold to mono, Gang Green won six of their last eight games. With Tom Brady out of the division, the Jets are in a better position than they’ve been in a decade to take control of the AFC East. But with a depleted defense and a young QB who still has a lot to prove, New York can’t be the favorites to win this year’s division crown. That has to go to the next team on our list.
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Covid Response: Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has opted out of the 2020 season. He was on a Bills D-line looking to improve its run-stopping ability.
Outside The Lines: Over the summer, a private text conversation showed Bills rookie QB Jake Fromm making racist statements about white gun ownership. In the viral exchange, Fromm said guns should become more expensive so “only elite white people can get them.”
Oh, he’s here now?:Stefon Diggs was traded to Buffalo via Minnesota in March for draft picks. Diggs will round out a strong starting receiving corps including Josh Brown and Cole Beasley.
Where’d he go?: Frank Gore, yes, that Frank Gore, has signed a one-year deal with the Jets after spending a year in Buffalo. The 37-year-old running back is entering his 16th season in the league and will back up Le’Veon Bell in New York. Want to feel old? Gore’s son, Frank Gore Jr., recently made his college football debut.
Fans in the stands: New York has allowed professional sports to resume but the state has not determined when, or if, fans should be allowed back into the stadiums. The Bills released a statement at the end of last month saying that the first two home games in September will be played without fans — meaning no Bills Mafia in the parking lot, either. Moving forward, the only true New York team will work with the state and league to “hopefully permit fans later this season.”
What to expect: The Bills haven’t won the AFC East title since 1995. They can break that streak this year. Buffalo’s defense is projected to be one of the best in the league, plus the addition of Diggscan give Josh Allen another weapon downfield. This team went 10-6 last year and lost a playoff game in overtime. Without Tom Brady and the Pats as we know them, can any other team stop the Bills?
5 / 7
Covid Response: Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the Dolphins, was converted into a massive drive-thru testing site when Florida became the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. In two weeks, the stadium will host 13,000 fans, roughly 20 percent of its total capacity.
Outside The Lines: Hard Rock Stadium was also used as a socially distant mediation space between the police and young black Floridians. In June, both parties took a knee on the field as names of Black victims of police violence were read aloud.
Oh, he’s here now?: The Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick in this year’s NFL draft. The highly touted QB will start the season as a backup under Ryan Fitzpatrick. In addition to having a great draft, Miami picked up Byron Jones,Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson, who will immediately contribute to an improving Dolphin defense.
Fans in the stands: This is a state that reopened gyms in May before a wave of cases rocked the state. Of course Miami will have fans in the stands, as mentioned above.
What to expect: Of course, the Fins have no shot at the division or playoffs this year. But this is an exciting team with a ton of young talent. I like to think of them as the Atlanta Hawks of the NFL — don’t expect them to win, but expect to be entertained. This is a rebuilding year for Miami, and it could set them up for a division championship in a year or two.
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Check out the rest of our NFL previews for this strangest of seasons: