(CBS Miami) – The AFC East was taken over by new management in 2020, as the Bills were crowned division champs. Buffalo’s emergence snapped a streak of 11 straight years atop the division for the New England Patriots, who had also won 17 of the previous 19 titles. For almost two decades, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick held the AFC East in a stranglehold. But now, like many others from the northeast, Brady has moved to Florida to ride out his golden years. Belichick is coming off his first losing season since the turn of the century.
Adding to the intrigue within this division is the sudden influx of youth at the most important position in sports, quarterback. The New York Jets and Patriots both drafted what they hope to be their franchise QBs, in BYU’s Zach Wilson and Alabama’s Mac Jones, this past spring. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins are rolling into year two with their own young signal caller in Tua Tagovailoa, who was Jones’ predecessor in Tuscaloosa.
Then of course we have the reigning champs, the Bills, who seem to have found their answer at quarterback. Josh Allen is coming off his age 24 season, where he had 46 total touchdowns and led the team to a 13-3 record, ultimately finishing one win short of a trip to the Super Bowl.
CBS Miami’s Michael Cugno has spent a good amount of time covering the AFC East, and heading into 2021, he believes Buffalo is the team to beat once again. But it may not be as much of a foregone conclusion as many believe.
“I don’t think [Buffalo] is out far in front of the field as much as everyone else may think,” Cugno said when asked about his pick for this year’s division winner. “I think the Dolphins are a very close second. But Buffalo last year, if you just take from the bye week to the playoffs, they started beating every opponent by double-digits. And that’s hard to do in the NFL. Usually NFL games are those one-score games that come down the fourth quarter. But the Bills were handily beating people down the stretch. I think if Josh Allen continues to make even more improvements with that offense, with Stefon Diggs, and he keeps on progressing, I think the Bills are still the top dog in the AFC East. I think the Dolphins are coming for them. They may push them for that top spot this year.”
If the Dolphins are going to take a step forward and improve upon their 10-6 record from a year ago Cugno believes it will be thanks to the left arm of their second-year quarterback.
“As Tua Tagovailoa goes, so too will this team. And you’re starting to see those improvements he promised he’d make in the offseason. And right now they’re coming to fruition. So if he stays on this track, it looks like the Dolphins could be in for another good season.”
The Patriots and Jets rounded out the bottom of the division last season, and each team had a very active offseason trying to avoid a similar fate in 2021. New York hired first-year head coach Robert Saleh, formerly defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, to take over for Adam Gase coming off a 2-14 campaign.
While the Jets were brining in a fresh face, New England saw some new tricks from their old ball coach. Wearing his General Manager’s hat, Belichick handed out a record $159.6 million in guaranteed money during free agency, an NFL record, straying far from franchise’s frugal reputation. Once again however, it all comes down to the QBs.
“I look at the Patriots, they had a top-10 defense in terms of points per game allowed last year,” Cugno said. “And if their quarterback situation gets under control with Mac Jones, they can be another wild card team. (Note: The Patriots released Cam Newton on Tuesday, after the above video was made, handing the team to Mac Jones.) You look at the Jets, obviously Zach Wilson coming in there. If they can get things rolling with him, all of a sudden you’re looking at a division that could have four really good quarterbacks for the next 10 years. So it’s something to keep an eye on. The AFC East is definitely one of the more entertaining divisions to watch, maybe for the next decade.”
Thanks to the NFL schedule makers, fans won’t have to wait long for a good measuring stick of how the division will shake out. Week two will feature the Jets hosting the Patriots at MetLife Stadium and the Bills traveling down to Florida to face the Fins.
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