"I think we're there, to be honest," Jets WR Eric Decker said on NFL Network this week, via NY Daily News. "We're set up with a tough schedule... a playoff team's schedule. You got to win your division games. With [Patriots QB Tom Brady] being suspended four games, I think it makes that division up for grabs. I believe in this team that we're ready to make the run now."
Whew. This is a doozy from a team without a competitive quarterback on the roster. Let's ignore the fact that Brady won't be suspended for any of the Patriots games against the Jets, and let's actually evaluate the key question being raised here: How does the suspension of Tom Brady affect the Patriots chances of winning the AFC East?
Since the NFL's introduction of the Houston Texans and subsequent realignment in 2002, the Patriots have won 12 of 13 AFC East titles. The lone exception was the 2008 season where Tom Brady was sidelined with a torn ACL and Matt Cassel and the Patriots lost a tiebreaker to the Miami Dolphins.
Here's a table of when the Patriots clinched the AFC East, and with how many games left in the season:
So in the past 12 seasons with Brady at the helm, the Patriots have clinched the AFC East prior to week 15, with slightly more than 2.3 games left on the schedule.
This is clearly not a rigorously scientific exercise, but the implication is that the Patriots have never had to clinch the division during the final week of the season, and they usually do it with a couple of weeks to spare.
While the game against the Cardinals would have been a 50/50 event with Brady, I think most Patriots fans have acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm. The other three games are absolutely winnable for the Patriots, even with Garoppolo throwing the ball.
The Dolphins, Texans, and Bills have a combined 2-21 record against the Patriots in Gillette Stadium over the past decade, including the 2014 season finale loss against the Bills when the Patriots benched all of their starters. So, in other words, the Patriots are 21-1 against their week 2-4 opponents when they try to win the game over the past decade. The other loss was the wild cast game in 2008, with Cassel at quarterback.
Football Outsiders projects the suspension of Brady will cost the Patriots 0.6 wins over the first four weeks. If you subtract those 0.6 wins from the Patriots average of 2.3 games left on the schedule when they clinch the division, then we project New England to clinch the AFC East in either week 15 or 16.
Essentially, Garoppolo needs to lead the Patriots to 2.3 fewer wins over the first four games than what Brady would have won in order for the AFC East to be "up for grabs."
If we expected the Patriots to start 4-0 under Brady, then a 2-2 or 1-3 start by Garoppolo would open up the division. If we projected a more realistic 3-1 start for New England, then a 1-3 or 0-4 start for the Patriots would mean a competition down the stretch.
It's important to note that a 1-3 or 0-4 start does not mean that the Patriots will lose the division. It only means that the race for the division will be more competitive than it has been over Brady's career, and that the Patriots might actually play a meaningful game to decide the division in week 17.
But if Garoppolo finds a way to start the season 3-1, then perhaps the Patriots will be able to print another hat and t-shirt by week 15.