The playoff compass in the AFC is pointing due East.
The AFC East is winning at such a historic rate that all four teams — Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots — would qualify for the postseason if the regular season ended this week. That’s never happened in any division, dating to the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Likewise, no division in history has produced a season in which every team finished with a winning record, which happens to be the current situation. The first-place Dolphins (7-3) and last-place Patriots (5-4) are separated by the narrowest of margins with the 6-3 Bills and Jets sandwiched between.
To paraphrase Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, who led the Patriots and Jets in the 1990s, the teams are “stacked up like club sandwiches.”
“It’s a very good division,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “Obviously, New England, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon as long as Bill [Belichick] is the head coach. I think [coach Mike] McDaniel is doing a phenomenal job in Miami. They’re loaded with talent. Obviously, Buffalo is loaded as well. It’s a loaded division. … Every team has an identity that stands out on tape.”
The final eight weeks will be fascinating in the wild, wild East.
Here is a closer look at the division, courtesy of ESPN NFL Nation reporters Rich Cimini, Alaina Getzenberg Marcel Louis-Jacques and Mike Reiss.
Stephen A. Smith and Herm Edwards disagree about whether Tua Tagovailoa is a top-five quarterback right now.
Miami Dolphins (7-3)
Why the Dolphins could win the AFC East
When their running game complements their passing game, there might not be a defense in the NFL that can stop them. And if their defense plays the way it did Sunday in their 39-17 win over the Cleveland Browns, they could be the best team in the league — forget the division. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s efficient play has sparked an offense loaded with playmakers, and he is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Why the Dolphins are vulnerable
Because we haven’t seen consistent production from their defense through 10 weeks. Getting out of the AFC means having to stop offenses like Buffalo and Kansas City. There’s little doubt Miami can keep up with either team in a shootout, but eventually, its defense must be capable of making a stop.
What’s the No. 1 thing coach Mike McDaniel has done to turn things around for the first-place Dolphins, who are off to their best start since 2001?
Beyond anything he has done from the sideline, McDaniel has cultivated a culture of confidence, support and accountability throughout the Dolphins’ organization. The team has responded to his demeanor in the face of adversity and now seems to trust him after a slew of one-score wins. Tagovailoa said McDaniel’s attitude after three straight losses (Weeks 4-6) is what sealed his trust in the first-year head coach — whom he said remained consistent.
On the field, McDaniel has proven to be a brilliant playcaller who understands his players and puts them in a position to succeed. The Dolphins have recorded 3,915 yards this season — their second-most through 10 games in franchise history — which has meant record production for Tagovailoa and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. At this rate, McDaniel could be in the conversation for Coach of the Year come season’s end. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Buffalo Bills (6-3)
Why the Bills could win the AFC East
Before the Bills’ bye in Week 7, they had a strong case for being the best team in the league. When quarterback Josh Allen is clicking, the offense has looked unbeatable, and on defense, the addition of linebacker Von Miller has proven to be a major positive, with Buffalo having success early by not needing to blitz. The Bills have also had the depth to make up for injuries.
Why the Bills are vulnerable
Right now, it’s the play of the quarterback, because so much revolves around that position. Allen is going through a rough stretch with six interceptions and one lost fumble in the past three games. He has thrown two interceptions in three straight games for the first time in his career and corrections are needed to return to his MVP-candidate form.
The Bills are 2-3 in one-score games; what’s going wrong at the end of games?
The Bills’ second-half woes have become such an issue that coach Sean McDermott spent time Monday going through what exactly has ailed the team in the final two quarters and overtime. There are two big concerns.
Red zone turnovers are a major issue, including Allen’s two end zone picks in Sunday’s 33-30 loss to the Vikings. And the Bills have also allowed teams to crawl back into games via the ground since their Week 7 bye. The defense has allowed the NFL’s highest yards per rush overall (5.9), inside the tackles (6.9) and after contact (2.8) since Week 8. They allowed the lowest in all of those categories through the first seven weeks.
“During the bye, we were one of the top teams in the second half both offensively and defensively,” McDermott said. “So we’ve obviously done it before, now we’ve taken a step back and now we have to reassess and make the appropriate adjustments.”
The Bills still own the best point margin in the league (+99), but both sides of the ball have handed opponents opportunities to stay in and win close games. That has to be corrected with four games against the AFC East still to come. — Alaina Getzenberg
New York Jets (6-3)
Why the Jets could win the AFC East
They’re a physical group who can play defense with any team in the league; the kind of formula you want in the colder months. They’re 4-0 on the road, and that’s important because five of their eight remaining games are away from MetLife Stadium.
“When we bring our best, we’re pretty hard to beat,” center Connor McGovern said.
They also should get healthier, with thee injured starters — receiver Corey Davis, offensive tackle George Fant and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins — due to return in the coming weeks.
Why the Jets are vulnerable
A few reasons.
Quarterback Zach Wilson is 5-1 as the starter, but there’s still a sense that he could implode at any moment. He lacks the consistency of a battle-tested quarterback. The Jets have the league’s 12th-toughest remaining schedule, as their opponents are a combined 41-35. They’re only 2-3 at home, so the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars won’t be gimmes. They feasted on backup quarterbacks in 3½ of their six wins.
Do the Jets have the right recipe on offense — without sensational rookie RB Breece Hall — to win?
It will be difficult because Hall provided a big-play dimension, a level of explosiveness that compensated for shortcomings in other areas. Michael Carter and James Robinson are competent running backs, but they don’t have game-breaking speed. It’ll be on offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur to scheme up different ways to make the running game unpredictable.
The Jets have enough playmakers on the perimeter to be dangerous, but they need a reliable No. 2 option to complement rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson. Davis can be that guy, assuming he gets healthy. They need to find a role for WR Elijah Moore, who has become the invisible man since his ill-timed trade request. Moore is too good to be ignored week after week.
Ultimately, it comes down to Zach Wilson. No doubt, he has improved from his rookie season, but can you count on a quarterback with only four touchdown passes in six games (5 INTs)?
Saleh defended Wilson, saying the media and fans are “holding him hostage” because of his three-interception game against the Patriots in Week 8. Wilson will have a chance to prove his coach right, as he gets a rematch with New England on Sunday. — Rich Cimini
New England Patriots (5-4)
Why the Patriots could win the AFC East
Health. Coming out of their bye week, they have almost all of their top players available for the back half of the schedule. So much of football can simply be a battle of attrition. Having no starters on IR this season, and the anticipated returns of starting center David Andrews (concussion), starting receiver DeVante Parker (knee) and defensive lineman Christian Barmore (knee) amplify this point.
Why the Patriots are vulnerable
They haven’t put it together on offense, and quarterback Mac Jones hasn’t looked as comfortable in the revamped offense that playcaller Matt Patricia and quarterbacks coach Joe Judge have put together, succeeding former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. In five-plus games, Jones is 111-of-168 for 1,140 yards, with four touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had 13 interceptions in 17 games last season.
What needs to happen on offense for the Patriots to make the short leap from last to first?
They are at their best offensively when they run the ball, which sets up play-action passing opportunities. That would allow them to complement the defense/special teams, which has been the strength of this season’s team. This is essentially how they pulled off their surprising run to the Super Bowl championship in the 2018 season, reinventing themselves late that season.
Fewer turnovers (17) will be a necessity along the way.
“If each individual player gets better, we can kind of put that together as a team, and obviously as an offense, and then kind of kick-start the back half of the year here,” Jones said. — Mike Reiss