This was expected to be the year of the Patriots downfall, right? The end of their reign atop the AFC East.
Or at least it was going to be the year where the gap between New England the rest of the field disappeared as all four teams battled out for divisional supremacy, Mario Party style.
The Bills added head coach Rex Ryan to their already devastating defense, and added top tier offensive skill players in running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Charles Clay, and wide receiver Percy Harvin. The 2014 Bills had just finished with a winning record (9-7) for the first time in the past decade, and all of these roster improvements undeniably made Buffalo a contender.
The Dolphins finished 2014 with an 8-8 record, but at least they had a quarterback of the future in Ryan Tannehill and his contract extension. Miami brought aboard tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Kenny Stills to help with Tannehill, and added golden goose free agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to the defense. If all of the players on the Dolphins roster continued to grow at a standard level, there would be no question that Miami could contend.
The Jets benefit from the last-place schedule after finishing 2014 with a 4-12 record, but no franchise underwent a bigger makeover. Not only did the entire front office and coaching staff change, the Jets added quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the fold, and then injected cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Buster Skrine, and Antonio Cromartie into the defense to complement the insane rotational depth on the defensive line.
The Dolphins placed last with a 6-10 record; the Bills were third at 8-8; the Jets came in second at 10-6. None of these teams made the playoffs.
The Patriots shipped away their top cornerbacks in Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, and even Alfonzo Dennard. They parted with defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork. Running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen left for greener pastures, while captain lineman Dan Connolly retired.
New England quietly signed defensive end Jabaal Sheard, and then mostly took care of in-house players with extensions for safety Devin McCourty and tackle Nate Solder. It appeared as if the Patriots suffered a net loss on talent when compared to the 2014 Super Bowl team.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see them drawn back into a title battle in the division this year," our friends at Gang Green Nation wrote. "Their running back group is among the worst in the league, they've lost big Vince up front and their secondary took a beating through free agency despite the re-signing of touted safety Devin McCourty.
"I also don't believe their roster is capable of going 12-4 this year."
Those weren't unique thoughts. Bills head coach Rex Ryan even echoed those comments in a press conference.
"I feel pretty good about what we've added [in free agency]," Ryan told Toronto's SportsNet 590. "Obviously New England had to cut quite a few players. So obviously they don't look as strong as they did."
The Patriots followed up a 12-4 Super Bowl season in 2014 with another ho-hum 12-4 season and the division never in doubt, league-worst injuries and all. Mike almost nailed his preseason predictions, and my predictions were pretty darn close as well.
And that kind of sums up the AFC East. It's predictable. Like the tides, challengers will rise and fall, but the Patriots will continue to be the last team standing at the end of the season.
Next year could be more interesting. The Jets probably have the best roster of the three other teams, but from a league-wide perspective, they are second in age to only the Colts; this isn't a long term fix. The Bills have plenty of talent, but they lack a quality coaching staff to fully utilize their skills. The Dolphins will be under new management and leadership.
The Patriots don't have any notable free agents and the hidden value of consistency is tremendously important. New England might have to replace Josh McDaniels, if the offensive coordinator departs to assume a head coaching role elsewhere, but tight ends coach Brian Daboll is waiting in the wings for his turn. Next year, all of the league-worst injuries should heal and New England should once again be atop the divisional throne.
We'll go through the same song and dance next March and April when the Dolphins sign a headliner free agent, or when the Jets add another blue chip prospect to their defense in the draft, or Rex Ryan promises that this is the year that the Bills make the playoffs.
But we all know better. The Patriots will continue to quietly own the division until further notice.