State of the AFC East

Jared Wickerham

How do the Patriots stack up against the rest of the division?

After two weeks, the Patriots sit atop the division, although they're likely at the edge of their seats. With all the turnover on offense, no one should have expected the Patriots to be as far ahead of the rest of the division as they have been in the past- although as of now, it seems as if the rest of the teams are closer than we expected.

The Patriots are undefeated at 2-0, with two extremely close division games under their belt. With a score differential of +5, New England needed a last second field goal to beat the Bills in Buffalo and multiple game-ending interceptions by the defense to close out the Jets at home. While the team is in good positioning, there's little space to rest with games against the Buccaneers, Falcons, Bengals, and Saints, as well as two more divisional games against the Jets and Dolphins before the midway point.

The Patriots clear weakness thus far is on offense and their struggles are exacerbated when they can't generate anything from their rushing game because the offensive line can't open up any lanes. Every single team through the midway point will feature a top tier defensive line with either elite players (The Bucs have Gerald McCoy, Bengals have Geno Atkins, Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson, Dolphins have Cameron Wake), rising stars (Saints have Cam Jordan), or just consistent players across the board (Falcons have Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters, Osi Umenyiora, Kroy Biermann Biermann has been placed on season ending IR). There's not a cakewalk on the schedule, so look for the Patriots offense to keep struggling until their rookies are fully up to speed and Rob Gronkowski is able to take the field.

The Dolphins are on the Patriots shoulder, with a similar 2-0 record, with both wins coming on the road. Their first was against a deceptively good Browns defense (The Ravens only put up 14 points, with an offense in a similar state as the Patriots), where Miami walked out with a 23-10 score. They did that without any production from their running backs- Lamar Miller was a breakout candidate at running back who gained a shocking 3 yards on 10 carries- and their shiny new receiver Mike Wallace (1 reception, 15 yards).

This week they got production from both of those players and went to Indianapolis, which is not an easy stadium to play at, and sealed a 24-20 victory by playing some clutch defense against a rising offense and playoff contender. The Dolphins definitely have to be watched as they face the Falcons next week to see how they stack up against a proven elite offense. Hopefully the Patriots will have Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins back up to speed because the 'Phins look susceptible to plays to tight ends as well as deep balls.

The Bills look like they'll be more of a threat next season as they've been going through some growing pains. After faltering late against the Patriots, they managed to come back and bite the Panthers with a last second score of their own. Standing at 1-1, the Bills don't yet look like they'll make it to the playoffs, but their offense should continue to make strides over the course of the season and they should be circled on the calendars. Oh- and they've been playing this well without their best two defensive players in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd.

While the Patriots struggled against the Bills, and the Panthers aren't pushovers at 0-2 (they lost 12-7 to the Seahawks), the Bills still have some questions to answer. Can they survive in contention until Gilmore and Byrd return? Will their key rookies quarterback E.J. Manuel and linebacker Kiko Alonso hit a wall at some point? If they can't answer those questions, then look for the Bills to trail off as the season wears on. If they keep fighting, then look for them to play spoiler to a couple team's playoff hopes at the end of the year.

The Jets match the Bills at 1-1, with their loss also coming at the hand of the Patriots. Like the Bills, their only victory has come off the back of a lucky penalty to extend their comeback drive- the Jets had a late hit to push them into field goal range, Manuel threw a would-have-been game ending interception, a pass interference call gave them the ball back so he could engineer a game winning drive. Like the Bills, the Jets are riding the hand of their rookie quarterback, as well as their above average defensive talent.

Unlike the Bills, the Jets feature a few more holes on offense and are a year or two away from being where the Bills hopefully stand right now. The Jets are still trying to find their running back (think: Patriots in 2009), their receivers aren't as polished as the Bills (think: Patriots in 2013), and they're playing out this season with the thought that their head coach will likely be let go at the end. That's why the expectations are lower than for the Bills. In reality, that may make the Jets more dangerous since they'll have nothing to lose. Every single player on the Jets is fighting for a spot in a new regime and that could help them play the same spoiler role as the Bills.

As it stands, all teams have a similar shot to take the crown. The Patriots have their issues and the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets are all ready and willing to take their chance. Look for the teams to show their true colors at mid season since they all play a roughly similar schedule through that point. Either the top team will separate itself, or we'll see that this division is a lot closer than it has been in the past.

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