With the NFL season kicking off this Thursday with the Philadelphia Eagles opening up the defense of their Super Bowl LII title against the Atlanta Falcons, what better time to preview the season, especially now that rosters are mostly set after a mostly ignored preseason.
These previews are going to feature a quick look back at last season, any major personnel moves that may affect the upcoming season, and a prediction for how we think each division is going to play out. At the end of the week, we’ll post a separate post that combines them all and predicts the playoff participants, as well as who we think will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on February 3, 2019.
We are switching conferences now, heading to the AFC, which appears – at first glance – much more top heavy than the NFC. I’m projecting three teams in the AFC to win at least 13 games, while the NFC leader – the Green Bay Packers – tops out at 12. The top-heaviest division of them all is the subject of this preview, the AFC East, which the Patriots have dominated for much of this century. The question is usually “will any of the non-Patriots team in the division compete for a playoff spot?” not will any of the teams knock them from their perch at the top of the division, a spot where they’ve ended 15 of the last 16 seasons. I don’t expect this season to be much different.
The Patriots finished the season at 13-3, just one game worse than their Super Bowl winning 2016 season. They sealed up the AFC East in Week 15, and clinched a record-setting 8th consecutive season with 12 wins in Week 16. Winning in the last game of the season also secured the top seed in the conference for the second year in a row, which they rode to their Super Bowl loss against the Philadelphia Eagles. After an opening season loss to the Kansas City Chiefs left many questioning if they were as dominant as the prior season, they finished the season on a 13-2 run, with the two losses by a combined 10 points. It was simply yet another Belichick/Brady Patriots season, even without a Super Bowl win.
The Buffalo Bills managed to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7 last season, ending an 18-year playoff drought, though they needed a Bengals upset over the Ravens to clinch it for them. They followed that with an ugly 10-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card Round, ending the postseason before it really started. It was a promising start to the head coaching career of Sean McDermott, the former defensive coordinator of the Panthers.
The Miami Dolphins were coming off of a playoff berth the previous season, but failed to live up to expectations after the preseason loss of quarterback Ryan Tannehill to injury, and tried to rely on the “retired” Jay Cutler to right the ship. They joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in playing 17 consecutive games last season after their Week 1 match up was postponed due to Hurricane Irma, so that probably didn’t help their on-field performance. They were 4-2 after a Week 7 win against the Jets, but lost five games in a row – and 8 of their last 10 – to finish out the season 6-10.
Finally, the New York Jets didn’t fare much better, even after a surprising 3-2 start under new coach Todd Bowles. They matched their 5-11 record from the 2016 season, and missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. Like the Dolphins, they started the season pretty well, only to lose nine of their last 11 games. There are higher hopes for this season, but I don’t see much room for improvement.
Major Personnel Moves
The Patriots will be without Tom Brady’s favorite target during the early part of the season, with Julian Edelman suspended four the first four games. They also lost wide receiver Danny Amendola to division rival Miami, and running back Dion Lewis to Tennessee. On the offensive line, the departure of Cameron Fleming (Dallas) and Nate Solder (Giants) leave some holes, but I’m sure the Pats will figure it out. On the defensive side of the ball, they lost former Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler (also to Tennessee), though after he was benched in last seasons Super Bowl, I don’t know how much he will be missed.
The Jets brought in former Vikings starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to compete for the starting job, only to trade him at the end of the preseason to the New Orleans Saints. Last season’s nominal starter Josh McCown seems to be the starter yet again, though rookie 3rd-overall pick Sam Darnold from USC will be waiting in the wings.
Miami added the aforementioned Danny Amendola, but released former All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh – who signed with the Rams – in a cost-saving move. Buffalo moved on from quarterback Tyrod Taylor, trading him to the Cleveland Browns, and will start the season with Nathan Peterman under center, with their first round rookie quarterback Josh Allen (from Wyoming) watching from the sidelines.
The Patriots remain the class of the division, and I don’t see that changing this year, failing a dramatic decline or injury by Tom Brady. They should have the division locked up by Week 14, which could impact their overall record in the end. The Bills could improve their odds by performing better in games against the NFC East (I have them losing all 4 games) because they definitely won’t find any wins against the Patriots. The Jets and Dolphins will battle each other for the cellar of the division.
1. New England Patriots – 14-2 (6-0 division)
2. Buffalo Bills – 8-8 (3-3 division)
2. New York Jets – 6-10 (1-5 division)
4. Miami Dolphins – 4-12 (2-4 division)