Life in the AFC East has been simple for the last decade. Just plug in the New England Patriots at the top of the division, and see how everybody else shakes out.
Bill Belichick & Co. have won nine of the last 10 division titles, with Tom Brady leading the way. The star quarterback has been a constant stabilizing presence on an offense that has endured lots of turnover while the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills have all mostly looked up at the Patriots in the standings.
Well, except for 2008, when Brady was sidelined with a knee injury in Week 1. The Dolphins won the division that year, and they’d like nothing more than to change things at the top of the AFC East again.
“I’m excited where I’m at and where the team is at this point,” second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “We want to work to get better every day and use every opportunity we can, but the work is not done.
“We are still working to get better.”
Meanwhile the Jets and Bills are just trying to figure out who will be under center. For New York, will it be Mark Sanchez, dealing with a shoulder injury, or rookie Geno Smith? It’s even more uncertain in Buffalo, which may start the undrafted Jeff Tuel in Week 1, but also has injured first-rounder EJ Manuel and journeymen Matt Leinart and Thaddeus Lewis.
“It’s a brand new year, and everything’s up for grabs,” Bills defensive star Mario Williams said before training camp. “Everything’s up for the taking.”
Here are five things to know about the AFC East:
:IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QBs: Brady is still one of the NFL’s elite players, and it never seems to matter to whom he’s throwing or handing off. Tannehill is coming off a so-so rookie season he hopes to build on. Rex Ryan’s Jets don’t know if Sanchez will be healthy enough, so they might be forced to go with the raw Smith, a first-round talent who slipped to the second round because of questions about his abilities and mental makeup.
As for the Bills, they drafted Manuel in the first round, but he has a knee injury, and Kevin Kolb has a career-threatening concussion. So Tuel could become the NFL’s first undrafted quarterback to start in Week 1 directly out of college.
Here’s something that might make Brady feel old: When he took over as the Patriots’ starter in early 2001, the potential opposing starting QBs in the AFC East were barely out of Pop Warner: Tannehill was 13, while Smith and Tuel were both 10.
:PATRIOTS GAMES: Wes Welker is in Denver, and Aaron Hernandez is in prison facing a murder charge. Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are also gone. A rebuilding year on offense for the Patriots? That’s nothing new for Brady. It seems every few years New England changes the pieces around the quarterback and people wonder if he’ll have enough talent helping him. Somehow, he always seems to make it work, and you can expect more of the same this season.
Danny Amendola, Kenbrell Thompkins and a possibly healthy Rob Gronkowski, along with a solid backfield with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, should have Brady, Belichick and the Patriots feeling pretty good about a 10th division crown in 11 seasons.
:NEW-LOOK DOLPHINS: The Dolphins went on a spending spree in the offseason, perhaps thinking the Patriots are vulnerable. There are 11 projected new starters, including Mike Wallace, who gives Tannehill a speedy and experienced playmaking receiver. The most important move, however, could be Jonathan Martin, who slides from right tackle to left tackle — the spot vacated by Jake Long. Miami needs Martin to help protect Tannehill. This franchise has been looking for a franchise QB since Dan Marino left.
GROUNDED JETS?: Ryan has gone from one of the most entertaining and brash coaches in the league to a shell of his former self. Gone is the bravado and bold guarantees that made Ryan’s daily news conferences a must-watch. Losing can do that to even the most boisterous of coaches. There’s a new GM in town in the buttoned-up John Idzik, and Ryan’s future rides on how he meshes with him and what he can do with a team that lacks playmakers on offense. Then there’s the quarterback situation — Sanchez or Smith? — which could be a season-long drama that leads to Ryan’s demise.
BUFFALO STANCE: The Bills went through a complete makeover in the offseason, hiring a new GM in Doug Whaley and coach in Doug Marrone, then drafting Manuel with the hope he could be a franchise quarterback. If the Jets have a bad QB situation, the Bills somehow have an even worse dilemma. The fact that most Bills fans probably hadn’t heard of Tuel until a few weeks ago says it all.
However, if Manuel can bounce back quickly from a left knee injury, the first QB drafted in April could give a franchise that has gone 13 straight years without a playoff appearance some hope. For next year, of course.