The gap between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East is smaller than ever, right? The league wants parity because it makes the product more exciting for the supporters of less successful teams- any given Sunday, right?
This past year, the Panthers became the first team to win back-to-back NFC South titles since the division's inception in 2002. The NFC East hasn't had back-to-back division winners since the Eagles won four straight from 2001-2004. The Vikings won six straight NFC North (formerly the NFC Central) titles, and won 10 out of 11 from 1968-1978. The NFC West Los Angeles Rams hold the record of seven straight titles from 1973-1979.
In the AFC, the Colts have won nine out of 13 South titles. The West has featured some level of parity since the end of the Raiders run of nine out of 10 titles between 1967-1976. The North hasn't had a team win three-straight titles since the Steelers from 1994-1997.
The AFC East is different. The Patriots have won six straight and 11 of the past 12 (and 12 of the past 14). In those two seasons they didn't win the title, they lost due to a tiebreaker. Tom Brady has won 11 straight divisional titles. The AFC East is Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's until further notice.
Yet it makes sense that many want the Patriots reign to be over. Bills fans haven't had a reason to excited since the 90s, and last season was their first winning record in the past decade. The Dolphins had a blip with the wildcat, but they've only had two winning records in the past decade. The Jets just fired their most successful coach since Weeb Ewbank in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The Patriots are the root of a lot of their struggles. It's not that these are bad teams on the field, it's that each cannibalizes on the others, and New England eats them all at the end of the day.
This year could be different, if the analysts have their say. The Bills will close the distance with Rex Ryan at the helm and their elite defense will give the Patriots trouble with Ryan's schemes. The Jets will shrink the gap under rookie coach Todd Bowles and the addition of Brandon Marshall and James Carpenter and Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine. The Dolphins will be better because they traded for Kenny Stills and signed Jordan Cameron and Ndamukong Suh.
New England has taken a step back in talent in the secondary, there's no denying that, and the teams in the AFC East have certainly improved their rosters. The arrivals of Suh in Miami and first round defensive lineman Leonard Williams in New York seem to predict a different end to the Patriots control of the division.
The Patriots offensive line is the key to New England winning the division, and don't let anyone tell you any differently.
Let the Bills add Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay, and LeSean McCoy to their offense. Let the Jets add Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall, Jace Amaro, and Chris Ivory. Let the Dolphins add Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills, and Jordan Cameron. Let the Jets and Bills square off against a Bill Belichick defense with a remodeled secondary that won't be as bad as everyone is projecting and let them try to win without a viable quarterback throwing the ball. Let the Dolphins try to last a season without any real depth on the roster.
The Patriots will live and die by their offensive line and they will be ready for the hyped up defensive lines in the AFC East. Why? Because they've already played them all and the coaches will take advantage of any scheming match-ups.
Full season graph of Patriots RB selection versus opponent. pic.twitter.com/2WG7smG6RL— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) July 28, 2015
The Patriots made a point of featuring a different running back according to who they were playing. A strong defensive line would see a heavy dose of Shane Vereen, while a weak one would see LeGarrette Blount. It's a fairly simple adjustment that Josh McDaniels and company worked to perfection.
Last year, the Patriots played the following top defensive lines: Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Chiefs, Broncos, Lions, Ravens, Seahawks. They've faced the Bills with Mario Williams and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. They played Ndamukong Suh, and they've played Muhammad Wilkerson, and Von Miller, and Haloti Ngata, and Michael Bennett.
The Patriots lost two of those ten games (not factoring in the Week 17 game against the Bills were all of the starters sat). Both of those losses came in the first quarter of the season when Jordan Devey and Marcus Cannon were still starting on the offensive line. Once the offensive line played their best players, the Patriots didn't lose.
In their eight game winning streak against the likes of the Bills, Jets, Suh with the Lions, Dolphins, Ravens and Seahawks, the Patriots averaged 32.8 points per game. In the seven post-Kansas City games against non-top defenses, the Patriots averaged 33.4 points per game. There's offense never skipped a beat whenever they faced a top defense; the New England offense was consistent in their dominance.
There might be some growing pains early on the in the season as the rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason try to find their place on the roster. Hopefully they won't have a similar stretch as the first quarter of last season. But when it comes to the demise of New England's reign in the AFC East, it won't be the result of Ndamukong Suh. It will start once the other teams find their quarterbacks. Until then, the crown belongs to Belichick and Brady.