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The race to the top of the NFL’s AFC East


Buffalo Bills’ quarterback, Josh Allen, in a game against the Washington Football Team at Highmark Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. on Sept. 26, 2021.

In what has been an odd year for the NFL, to the surprise of many, the typically weak American Football Conference East division is in the midst of its tightest race in decades, and has been one of the most competitive divisions in the entire league. (1) Currently, all four teams have a winning record and all have a fair shot of making the playoffs. (2)

At 6–6 and in fourth place are the New England Patriots. Many questioned New England’s offseason. They lost key players such as JC Jackson and Shaq Mason, had a very quiet free agency, made puzzling staff hires and put together a draft that, at the time, left fans scratching their heads. However, it seems that coach Bill Belichick knew best, per usual, as they found themselves in the playoff picture once again.

New England’s defense has proven to be amongst the league’s best, led by Defensive Player of the Year Candidate and current NFL sack leader Matthew Judon. (3) Judon has been nearly unblockable for the majority of the season and has officially broken out as one of the league’s best edge rushers. He and guys like Deatrich Wise and Josh Uche have helped New England rack up the second-most sacks of any team this season. (4) The loss of standout sophomore defensive tackle Christian Barmore (5) may pose an issue against elite runners like Josh Jacobs and Joe Mixon, whom the Patriots will face in the upcoming weeks. (6)

The Patriots’ offense has been inconsistent throughout the season, especially with the Quarterback drama between Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, but Jones had his best game against the contending Minnesota Vikings this past Thanksgiving. Despite the loss, Jones threw for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns, a very promising stat line. (7) If Jones can continue to play like that, and premier weapons Rhamondre Stevenson and Jakobi Meyers stay healthy, then they can hang with the top dogs.

To the surprise of many, in third place are the New York Jets. The Jets have taken the jump from a promising young team to playoff contenders much faster than many anticipated, and what makes their run even more impressive is their putrid quarterback play. After starting the season with veteran Joe Flacco, last year’s second-overall pick Zach Wilson returned from injury looking to break out into the star he was expected to become.

The Jets quickly realized Wilson was anything but a star. His horrid play caused frustration among Jets’ players. It got to the point that sophomore wide receiver Elijah Moore even requested a trade from the team. (8) A week 11 disaster against New England was the final straw, as the Jets’ defense held the Patriots to three points, and Wilson failed to help New York score more than three of their own. (9)

Wilson completed nine of 22 passes, and the Jets lost on a last-minute punt return touchdown from Marcus Jones. (9) Wilson refused to take accountability for the loss (10) and was benched by coach Robert Saleh for backup Mike White. (11) White went on to torch the Chicago Bears in the next game for 315 yards and three touchdowns, effectively sealing Wilson as the backup for the season. (12)

Despite all the adversity, the Jets have had one of the league’s best defenses—to make up for their quarterback play—led by star defensive lineman Quinnen Williams and Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, cornerback Sauce Gardner. The loss of promising rookie running back, Breece Hall, has hurt the offense, but if Mike White continues to utilize New York’s other offensive talent, such as Garrett Wilson, the Jets will be a frightening team to face.

Coming in at second place are the Buffalo Bills, who went into the season as the Super Bowl favorite (13) and were expected to dominate throughout the season. For a while, it looked that way. However, Buffalo has looked a little too vulnerable since their bye week, losing two games against the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, and keeping it close against weak teams like the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. (14)

Despite what recent play shows, the Bills still have one of the most talented rosters in the league. Quarterback Josh Allen went into the season as the MVP favorite (15), and although it looks like the award may be going to Patrick Mahomes or Jalen Hurts instead, Allen has still been elite despite an elbow injury. The pairing of him and wide receiver Stefon Diggs continues to be arguably the top duo in the league. Even if Allen’s numbers have been slightly underwhelming as of late, with Diggs by his side and the potential acquisition of veteran wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (16), there’s no reason to believe he won’t get his act together come playoff time.

The Bills’ elite defense compliments their offense well too, but they have caught a case of the injury bug. Buffalo lost Pro-Bowl safety, Micah Hyde, for the year due to a neck injury (17), and more injuries have followed since. Recently, star linebacker Von Miller injured his knee and will be out for several weeks, while defensive starters such as Kaiir Elam, Tremaine Edmunds and Gregory Rosseau have also been dealing with injuries. (18) All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White has only recently returned from an injury he suffered last season. (19) It is going to be tough to picture their squad fully healthy, but even when injured, their roster has enough talent to make a strong run in the playoffs.

Lastly, the Miami Dolphins sit atop the division. The Dolphins’ offseason posed two questions. Can coach Mike McDaniel replace former coach Brian Flores, and will quarterback Tua Tagovailoa make the leap? The answers to these questions both seem to be yes, as the Dolphins have put together one of the league’s most electric offenses.

Tua has developed into one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks, throwing 19 touchdowns and completing 69.7 percent of his passes. (20) This is largely due to the speedy receiver duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Tyreek Hill was an established superstar with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Miami came out of nowhere and traded for him in the offseason. Hill is currently leading the league in both receptions and receiving yards (21), making a strong case for Offensive Player of the Year.

Waddle, on the other hand, is having a sensational sophomore season himself. He is fifth in receiving yards, has reeled in six touchdowns (21) and has established himself as an elite pass catcher. Tua and Waddle were college teammates at Alabama, and their chemistry has translated quite nicely into the NFL. The off-season acquisitions of offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Connor Williams have also helped the offense reach new levels, as their line was rated dead last in 2021. (22) With their solid defensive unit, Miami looks to make a name for themselves in the playoffs, but with no previous playoff experience, it will be interesting to see how Tua performs.

Each of these teams makes a strong case to take the division title. It’s going to be a war between these teams, as there are many divisional matchups left on the schedule. Regardless of who comes out on top, the AFC East has become the NFL’s powerhouse division, and other teams should be weary when they see one of these teams on their schedule.

Sources –

  1.  https://www.nfl.com/standings/

  2. https://www.nfl.com/standings/playoff-picture

  3. https://www.espn.com/nfl/stats/player/_/view/defense/table/defensive/sort/sacks/dir/desc

  4. https://www.statmuse.com/nfl/ask/most-team-sacks-this-season

  5. https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/35054677/patriots-place-dt-christian-barmore-ir-knee-injury

  6. https://www.patriots.com/schedule/

  7. https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437859

  8. https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34839826/frustrated-jets-wr-elijah-moore-excused-practice

  9. https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437850

  10. https://www.si.com/nfl/jets/news/zach-wilson-says-he-didnt-let-new-york-jets-defense-down-loss-new-england-patriots

  11. https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/zach-wilson-benched-jets-players-informed-former-top-pick-will-not-start-vs-bears-mike-white-gets-nod-at-qb/

  12. https://www.espn.com/nfl/game/_/gameId/401437864

  13. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkay/2022/07/31/super-bowl-lvii-odds-updated-betting-lines-for-every-team-heading-into-2022-nfl-season/?sh=1e07c7193fef

  14. https://www.buffalobills.com/schedule/

  15. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexkay/2022/07/28/nfl-mvp-2022-23-updated-odds-betting-lines-for-josh-allen-russell-wilson-and-more-award-favorites/?sh=746c392b1574

  16. https://www.foxnews.com/sports/bills-von-miller-confirms-odell-beckham-jr-visit-it-aint-over-till-its-over

  17. https://billswire.usatoday.com/2022/10/12/buffalo-bills-micah-hyde-surgery-neck-injury/

  18. https://www.buffalobills.com/team/injury-report/

  19. https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34920045/buffalo-bills-cb-tredavious-white-expected-activated

  20. https://www.espn.com/nfl/player/_/id/4241479/tua-tagovailoa

  21. https://www.nfl.com/stats/player-stats/category/receiving/2022/REG/all/receivingyards/DESC

  22. https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-final-2021-offensive-line-rankings

About the Contributor
Liam Crampton, Sports Writer