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The New England Patriots went into this season a guaranteed playoff team. Sure, there were the obligatory Super Bowl hangover references, but nobody truly believed them.
One game into the season they were reclassified slightly. Maybe they weren't favorites to win it all without Tom Brady, but they still were a surefire postseason club.
After all, they didn't have to dominate to reach the playoffs. They merely had to finish among the top six teams in the AFC.
That's going to be tricky because there are doubts they'll finish in the top half of their division. Maybe not among the top three.
The AFC East is that competitive.
The first-place Buffalo Bills and the last-place Miami Dolphins are separated by two games. Then sandwiched between are the New York Jets and Patriots at 3-2.
How refreshingly competitive. The past two seasons the Patriots bolted to a forceful start and at least one of the other four teams did a face plant out of the blocks, creating a sizable gap in the standings.
Since the NFL realigned in 2002 and moved the Indianapolis Colts out of the division, the only time the AFC East standings have been this tight heading into Week 7 was in 2005, but none of the four teams had a winning record. The Bills and Patriots were 3-3. The Dolphins were 2-3. The Jets were in last place at 2-4.
This season, however, three AFC East teams are above .500, and the revitalized Dolphins are two plays away from being tied with the 4-1 Bills.
Givens no longer reside here.
"You could look ahead a year or two at the AFC East and see the toughest division in all of football," said former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper. "It's good for competition, and no matter what players say, if you got the weak sister in there -- back in my day it was Buffalo -- you always were chalking up two wins. You don't have that anymore."
The Patriots, Jets and Dolphins all are 1-1 against each other.
Here's a breakdown of how the AFC East stacks up after six games:
Buffalo Bills (4-1)
The Bills might be the NFL's most balanced team. They don't rely on any one facet of their roster to bail out the others. A glance at the depth chart doesn't turn up an abundance of Pro Bowlers, but try to find a glaring weakness.
"Buffalo is the team to beat," Bokamper said. "With a healthy Trent Edwards, they are as good as any team in the AFC."
Edwards staying healthy is a real concern. He suffered a concussion in Week 5, and the Bills' offensive line has been playing on its heels at times.
The O-line still is dealing with the aftermath of left tackle Jason Peters' prolonged holdout. He missed voluntary offseason workouts, mandatory mini-camp and all of training camp before reporting without a new contract. Right tackle Langston Walker was moved to Peters' spot, further fiddling with the continuity.
"They just don't have it," said former Bills and Chicago Bears guard Ruben Brown, a nine-time Pro Bowler who still hasn't officially retired. "But the good thing is all these guys have worked together for a while. It'll start picking up, and now is the time to turn it on."
The Bills are the only AFC East team not to have played a divisional game, making for a rugged homestretch. Both Bokamper and Brown claim that augers well for them.
"I'm banking on the Bills beating the Jets each time, and I think that will shake up that division," said Brown, who is host to a weekly radio show that can be heard at BuffaloMainEvent.com. "It boils down to who wins out of the Jets and the Bills. That's where it's going to be."
New England Patriots (3-2)
|Kim Klement/US Presswire|
|Former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper thinks a Randy Moss breakdown is forthcoming.|
For the first time under head coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots have suffered two losses of 20 or more points in the same season. There are 11 games to go.
"I think New England is going to take some more lumps," Brown said. "It's just time. They've been on top for so long."
The Patriots have been unable to reinvent themselves without the injured Brady, who last season conducted one of the most prolific offenses in football history. Now the Patriots have the AFC East's lowest-scoring offense with 89 points. The winless Cincinnati Bengals have scored 88.
"And the Randy Moss tantrum hasn't really set in yet," Bokamper said. "It's going to happen at some point. When that blooms anything can happen there."
New England also has shown troubles on defense, particularly in the secondary. Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington owned the middle of the field in an eye-opening 38-13 laugher in Gillette Stadium. San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers chose to drop bombs on the Patriots' cornerbacks in Sunday night's 30-10 rout.
"As long as they have Bill Belichick and Randy Moss and all that talent they have there, they just need to treat it game by game," former New York Jets defensive lineman Marty Lyons said. "They didn't play well and made a lot of mistakes against the Chargers, but it's only one game. Belichick will learn more about his team, his quarterback and realize the NFL is a long season.
"They're well-equipped to make a strong run. You haven't heard the last of New England."
New York Jets (3-2)
The more Brett Favre becomes familiar with the Jets offense, the tougher they'll be to beat.
The Jets already have established themselves in the trenches. The Patriots line up Pro Bowlers from center out to left tackle, but the Jets' offensive line is the best in the division despite inserting free agents Alan Faneca and Damien Woody. The Jets' defensive line anchors a unit that's third-best against the run.
Favre through five games has a 103.0 passer rating, which would be the best in his career over a full season. He has even more potential because he's still learning the offense. Brown's days with the Bears taught him the best way to beat Favre is to knock him around, but the Jets' O-line will make that difficult.
"If you take him out of the game early you can win," said Brown, whose Bears were 6-2 against Favre's Packers. "You have to contest everything he does. But he's like Michael Jordan. If you keep it close, he's going to beat you."
The Jets need to better establish their running game. Thomas Jones hasn't eclipsed 100 yards since the season opener, but he scored two rushing touchdowns in Sunday's victory over the Bengals. He also had a receiving TD for the first three-score game of his career.
"They just have to take care of business," Lyons said of the Jets. "They don't have to win by 50 points. It doesn't have to look pretty. They just have to win. That would set up a big game against Buffalo.
"It's potentially a game for first place if both teams do what they're supposed to do. But they can't look ahead."
Miami Dolphins (2-3)
Let's see a show of hands from NFL head coaches: How many of you want to play the Dolphins?
Zero would be the appropriate response.
The Dolphins aren't handing out free wins anymore. Pennington's leadership, while not cutting it with the Jets coaching staff, has been perfect for the Dolphins. Running back Ronnie Brown is flashing All-Pro talent. Their revitalized defense, energized by linebacker Joey Porter and cornerback Will Allen, has given up the fewest points in the AFC East.
"Tackle to tackle on both sides of the ball, I don't want to say they're as good as anybody, but they can compete with anybody," Bokamper said.
And we're not even going to factor in the Wildcat, an entertaining offense that often overshadows what's going on in Miami.
Football operations boss Bill Parcells, first-year general manager Jeff Ireland and rookie head coach Tony Sparano have changed the culture dramatically. T
he Dolphins are not losers anymore.
Brown calls the Dolphins the most dangerous team in the NFL, though he isn't quite sold on them for this year's AFC East race.
"It's five games into the season," Brown said. "It's going to get tougher. I don't think they're going to hold up in the long haul.
"Most teams that have new administrations, they start to wear down as the season goes on. Guys come in with a hard-line attitude and work the guys hard to develop an attitude or prove a point. That wears a team down. The only exception has been Jon Gruden in Tamp Bay, but he took over Tony Dungy's team, which was good to begin with.
"They're spirited. I think they're going to cause problems for people, but if they make the playoffs I'll be surprised."