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How to Understand the AFC East

The Patriots are in first, as expected, but after that it gets weird. The Bills look good. The Dolphins have a winning record. Even the Jets have been solid. What is going on in this division?

A collage of players from the AFC East Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Prior to the start of the season, it looked like the Patriots would have an easy path to a ninth straight AFC East title. After loading up in free agency and via trades, the reigning Super Bowl champs had—at least we thought—upgraded their roster to they-could-go-undefeated levels while the rest of the teams in the division appeared to be actively imploding. The Dolphins, a 10-win playoff squad last year and the only apparent challenger to New England, had lost franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill to an ACL injury. The Bills had brought in a new GM and head coach, forced their starting quarterback to take a pay cut, let most of their free agents sign elsewhere, and traded away a throng of their big-name stars. Then there were the Jets, who appeared to be in full-on tank mode, cutting most of their veteran players, trading away Sheldon Richardson, and signing longtime vet Josh McCown to function as a stopgap as the team careened toward a future first overall pick.

But as we near the season’s midway point, those preseason narratives have been put to rest. The AFC East isn’t just more competitive than most of us thought it’d be—for the first time in years, the Patriots’ monopoly on divisional supremacy feels vulnerable.

The easy-to-spot difference between the Patriots during the early part of this year and the squad that won the Super Bowl last February had been an immense drop-off in the team’s ability to play something resembling defense. The unit that gave up the fewest points of any group last year started the season with a string of shockingly bad performances—giving up an average of 26.5 points per game while allowing opposing passers to throw for 300-plus yards in each of the team’s six games. What kept the Patriots competitive through that rough patch of defensive performances (they went 4-2) was the one constant that remained: Tom Brady being ridiculously good at football.

Over the past two weeks, though, New England’s defense has shown signs of improvement. After holding reigning MVP Matt Ryan in check in last week’s 23-7 blowout win over the Falcons, that unit limited Philip Rivers to just 212 yards passing with one touchdown and one interception in the team’s 21-13 win over the Chargers on Sunday. The defense stymied L.A.’s offense without versatile linebacker/pass rusher Dont’a Hightower (whose season is over after a torn pectoral), and despite missing big-ticket free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore (concussion and ankle injuries), standout defensive tackle Malcom Brown (ankle), and a key piece of their defensive back rotation, Eric Rowe (groin). And apart from a few busted plays—an 87-yard Melvin Gordon jail-break touchdown run in the first quarter and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Travis Benjamin in the middle of the fourth, New England’s defense finally carried its share of the load when the team’s normally high-scoring offense faltered in the red zone, finding the end zone just once in four trips.

Time will tell if the Patriots defense is “back” or whether the past two weeks were just an anomaly. If Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have cleaned up some of the issues that plagued this team (now 6-2 and ahead of Buffalo by half a game) in the early going, it’ll give New England the balance it needs in order to run away with its 15th division title in 17 years. But if that version of the team’s early-season defense rears its ugly head again, their grip on the division could be in serious jeopardy, because the Bills (now 5-2 after a 34-14 win over the Raiders) are nipping at their heels.

The Bills’ trade of Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars over the weekend was just the latest in a long line of moves that, on paper anyway, combined to paint a picture of a team that is smack dab in the middle of a rebuild. Buffalo had let most of its receiver corps go in free agency, let Mike Gillislee leave for the Patriots, and traded Sammy Watkins to the Rams over the offseason. But new head coach Sean McDermott appears to have a clear vision for his club’s identity, and a few of the team’s under-the-radar signings in free agency and a smart pick or two in the draft have combined to cancel out all those personnel losses over the past few months and help turn the Bills into a legit contender. Safety Micah Hyde, signed to a five-year, $30 million deal in March, leads the NFL in interceptions (five). Safety Jordan Poyer, signed to a four-year, $13 million pact, has been an impact addition. Cornerback E.J. Gaines (acquired in the deal that sent Watkins to the Rams) has played well, too, and rookie corner Tre’Davious White, taken in the first round of the draft, has been a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

But even without Poyer and Gaines (and a third starter, linebacker Ramon Humber) this Sunday, the Bills defense remained stout, shutting down a Raiders team that gained 505 yards and dropped 31 points on the Chiefs last week. After giving up a 13-play, 81-yard touchdown drive to Derek Carr and the Oakland offense on the team’s first offensive possession, Buffalo kept the Raiders from adding to the scoreboard until the early fourth quarter, when the game was already out of reach. The Bills picked off Carr twice, forced four fumbles (recovering two), and bottled up the Raiders’ run game.

The Bills’ winning formula—get turnovers on defense while taking care of the ball on offense—was on full display, and it’s a plan this team seems capable of recreating with consistency. With a four-to-nothing turnover margin on Sunday, the Bills are now plus-14 on the season, tops in the NFL. Tyrod Taylor finished an efficient 20-of-27 for 165 yards and a touchdown, this beauty to Andre Holmes:

Most importantly, the Bills have started to unleash their powerful run game. LeSean McCoy finished with 27 rushes for 151 yards and a touchdown, Taylor added a 1-yard touchdown run, and Buffalo finished the game with 166 yards on 37 totes to build on a 173-yard output last week. The ground game is an element this team needs if it hopes to keep pace with—and eventually pass—the Patriots in the AFC East standings. The Bills don’t have the talent at receiver to expect a big jump in the passing game, but we’ve seen what this team can do when McCoy and Taylor really start rolling. Buffalo led the league with 164.4 rush yards per game and 29 touchdowns last year—and if the Bills are getting back some of their mojo on the ground, it could propel them to their first postseason berth since 1999.

The Patriots and Bills headline what’s shaping up to be an exciting divisional race, but the Dolphins and Jets are a pair of unpredictable wild cards that could make an impact down the stretch, as well. Despite an at-times-unwatchable start, the Dolphins are quietly, inexplicably 4-3 and just one game back of Buffalo at the halfway point of the season. And while most statistical categories would indicate that the Dolphins are a pretty bad team—they came into the week 28th in Football Outsiders DVOA and then lost 40-0 to the Ravens on Thursday Night Football, for instance, and remain dead last in points per game, yards per game, and yards per play—this is still a group that figured out how to beat the Chargers, Titans, Falcons, and Jets. They’ve got dangerous playmakers in DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills, and Jay Ajayi, and boast a fearsome defensive line featuring Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, and Andre Branch. Those players alone aren’t likely going to be enough to make Miami a repeat playoff squad this year, especially with the quarterback play the team’s gotten from Jay Cutler and Matt Moore, but the talent at those spots does give the Dolphins a chance to throw in a handful of upsets over the second half—perhaps even in those important divisional matchups, which always seem so unpredictable (the Dolphins still face the Patriots and Bills twice apiece in the second half). The Dolphins can’t be called postseason favorites, but they are cruising toward a game or two in which they play spoiler for another team’s playoff hopes.

Even the Jets (3-4) look capable of winning on the proverbial Any Given Sunday, and could shake things up in the division via their matchups with the Bills and Patriots on the second-half slate. The signing of Josh McCown was pretty widely panned as a nonsensical move for a team that needed to find out what it had in its young cadre of quarterbacks, but McCown’s actually been pretty good in the role the team’s asked him to play. The 38-year-old veteran’s completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 1,840 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions in eight starts to help lead the Jets to an improbable 3-5 first half. Receiver Jermaine Kearse (acquired as part of the Richardson trade) has been solid, with 20 receptions for 342 yards and four touchdowns, and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins has turned his career around with 31 catches for 201 yards and three scores in six games. Defensively, New York’s gotten encouraging play from its pair of rookie safeties in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, and even veteran Morris Claiborne’s looked something like a shutdown cornerback, shadowing opposing teams’ top receivers with plenty of success. The Jets were supposed to be one of the worst teams in football, but no one’s looking past them now.

The Patriots are still the favorites for a reason—Brady can put his team on his back, no matter how bad the defense plays—and this wouldn’t be the first time we've seen Buffalo put together a solid first half of the season only to falter down the stretch. But the Bills offer a brand of balanced, physical football, and adding in the sporadically competent Dolphins and surprisingly plucky Jets, the race for the AFC East title is anything but the cakewalk we thought it’d be for New England prior to the season.