- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's an opening statement you can take to the bank: The New England Patriots will win the AFC East.
I've mostly stayed away from predictions all season. But so many people are jumping off the New England bandwagon, I thought I would offer this one-time public service announcement.
The changing of the guard hasn't happened yet in the AFC East. This is still the "Belichick and Brady" division.
Many are fooled by New England's rare, two-game losing streak. But many will feel foolish in January when the Patriots are back atop the AFC East, fulfilling preseason expectations.
Here are several reasons why that is a big mistake:
1. Quarterback Tom Brady
Quarterbacking is king in the NFL. The Patriots have Tom Brady on their sideline. The Jets and Bills do not.
The quarterback gap is extremely wide in the AFC East. Brady is in that elite first tier, and everyone else is at least a couple of notches lower. That favors New England over a 16-game season.
Brady hasn't played up to his usual elite status the past two weeks. But that won't last. He will get in rhythm again, and it could start as early as this weekend against the Jets.
Brady is the biggest factor separating New England from the AFC East pack. He's thrown for 2,703 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and has a 100.0 passer rating. Mark Sanchez proved earlier this season he cannot carry the Jets on his back by throwing 40 times a game. Fitzpatrick is very streaky and still has a lot to prove, especially when talking about winning division titles and leading Buffalo to the postseason.
Which quarterback do you trust most over a 16-game season: The future Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl rings, Sanchez or Fitzpatrick? It’s not even close.
As long as Brady is healthy and productive, the Patriots will win their division.
2. Easy schedule
Here is a little-known fact: New England has the easiest remaining schedule in the NFL.
ESPN.com NFC West blogger Mike Sando recalculated the strength of schedule at midseason. The Patriots' opposing win percentage in the final eight games is .369.
After Sunday's game against New York, the Patriots play six of their final seven against teams without winning records. The Buffalo Bills are the only remaining opponent with a winning record -- and the Patriots will get that rematch at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots' other six opponents -- Indianapolis, Miami, Denver, Washington, Kansas City and Philadelphia -- are a combined 14-35. New England has a great chance to get hot and win most (or all) of these games.
In contrast, Buffalo has four tough road games remaining against the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, Patriots and Jets. The Bills will be underdogs in all of those games. The Jets still have the Patriots, Bills, Eagles and Giants on their schedule.
3. Coach Bill Belichick
The Patriots have the best and most accomplished head coach in the NFL. Bill Belichick will right the ship in the second half. He always does.
Since 2003, Belichick's Patriots are an amazing 53-11 in the second half of the regular season. This includes three 8-0 runs in 2003, 2007 and 2010.
Belichick's championship résumé speaks for itself. His only losing season was in 2000 -- the first year he joined the Patriots. Belichick led New England to the playoffs eight times and will do it again this season.
The Patriots have not lost three straight under Belichick since 2002. That streak is in danger this weekend against the Jets. But this is not a must-win for New England, which has a cakewalk schedule after this week.
New England also beat the Jets 30-21 in Week 5. Therefore, the tiebreaker would still be up for grabs if both teams finished with the same record at the end of the regular season.
4. The defense will improve
The Patriots are ranked dead last in total defense. There's nowhere to go but up.
New England went 5-3 in the first half of the season with one of the worst defenses in the NFL. The Patriots nearly went 6-2 had their defense not allowed a late, game-winning drive last week by quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants.
The Patriots are struggling with their transition to more of a 4-3 scheme. Belichick's specialty is coaching defense, and he will eventually get this group to improve.
New England doesn't need a top-10 defense. This team relies on its offense, which is ranked second in the NFL. If the Patriots' defense can get anywhere near the top 20, New England will be hard to beat.
Regardless of what happens against the Jets on Sunday, there's no reason the Patriots cannot win another six games in the second half and finish with an 11-5 record.
That will be enough for the Patriots to win the AFC East.