For years, the AFC East was the laughing stock of the NFL. The division, outside of the mighty Patriots, was looked at as completely inept. It was often used to fuel arguments from those who sought to diminish the accomplishments of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The argument, in a nutshell, being that the Patriots benefited greatly from their weak division.
The counter argument to that theory is a quite obvious one. The Patriots were good against everyone. Their dominance was not simply confined to the AFC East.
However, it’s time to ponder a new argument. With Tom Brady out of the picture after roughly two decades, the AFC East suddenly looks representable again. The Bills and Dolphins are a combined 12-5 which is tied for the third best combined record of any two teams in the NFL currently atop their respective division. With the way some people talk about the AFC East, you may have expected the division to more closely resemble the current NFC East standings with the Patriots struggling. As it turns out, the Bills and Dolphins aren’t too bad.
What we’re seeing now is two teams finally free from the chains that held them back for so long. No longer are they forced to compare themselves to the duo of the greatest coach and the greatest quarterback in league history. You see, the argument works both ways. People want to blame the rest of the AFC East for the Patriots being so dominant, but they don’t want to blame the Patriots dominance for the rest of the AFC East being so bad. It’s the chicken and the egg argument. Which is the cause and which is the result?
Some people seem to equate year-to-year fluctuation with competitiveness. Instead of having the ups and downs of every other division in football, the AFC East was just consistent. It wasn’t the Patriots luck to be in a division flush with horrible competition, but rather the misfortune of their division rivals to be in a division with the Patriots. If you take the team names out of it, the AFC East’s second, third and fourth place finishers on a yearly basis weren’t any worse than those of any other division in football. If you take the first place team out of every division from 2000-2017, the AFC East’s combined record is actually the best in the NFL.
There are still people out there arguing for the AFC East’s futility. Unfortunately, the argument is getting weaker by the week. The Bills and Dolphins are both coming off of fantastic wins against the two best offenses in the league. Literally, the two best. Buffalo beat Seattle, the #1 offense in the NFL by points per game, and Miami beat Arizona, the #1 offense in the NFL in yards per game. These teams are playing with the knowledge that they actually have a chance to win their division, a confidence they didn’t have when Tom Brady was around.
So, were the Patriots always so good because the rest of the AFC East couldn’t compete or could the rest of the AFC East not compete because the Patriots were so good? Are we supposed to believe it’s just a mere coincidence that as soon as Tom Brady leaves the division, the Bills and Dolphins are suddenly good again? It seems a little too convenient. Perhaps it’s time to accept that the AFC East was never all that bad. The Patriots were just that good.
Photo: (Lynne Sladky – AP Photo / John Munson – AP Photo)