NFL: Is the AFC East Now the Toughest Division in the League?

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Since the start of the new millennium, the New England Patriots have won 12 AFC East division titles. Over that same stretch of time, their divisional foes – the Miami Dolphins, the New York Jets, and the Buffalo Bills – have combined to win three. For as good as the Patriots have been over the last 15 years, their AFC East counterparts have been almost equally awful. Aside from a handful of seasons in which the Jets and Dolphins proved to be formidable opponents, the Patriots could almost count on going 6-0 within the division on a yearly basis.

In fact, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots — who, by NFL rules, should have had one of the tougher schedules in the league in 2015 — opened the season with just the 22nd-most difficult schedule in the NFL. The main reason for this seemingly unfair scheduling advantage was that the rest of the AFC East combined to go 21-27 in 2014. However, that could all be changing in 2015. After years of being the league’s most top-heavy division, the AFC East could now actually be the strongest and most competitive division in the entire National Football League.

In Week 1 of the 2015 regular season, all four AFC East teams won, and did so in impressive fashion. The Patriots beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 28-21, the Jets beat the Cleveland Browns 31-10, the Bills beat the Indianapolis Colts 27-14, and the Dolphins beat the Washington Redskins 17-10. Granted, it was only one week, but all four teams looked good enough to contend for a spot in the AFC Playoffs this coming January.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Patriots are, well, the Patriots. With Tom Brady under center, Bill Belichick calling the shots from the sidelines, and a healthy Rob Gronkowski at tight end, it’s hard not to consider New England as the front-runners to be the team representing the AFC in Super Bowl 50. By all indications, their dynasty will not be dying down anytime soon.

The Bills were perhaps the most impressive team in the entire league on the first Sunday of regular season action. They thoroughly dominated an Indianapolis Colts team that is coming off of an appearance in the AFC Championship Game last season, and was one of the popular picks to be the team representing the AFC in the Super Bowl this season. Going into the season, we all knew that the Bills have one of the best defenses in the league – and they did not disappoint against the Colts. They picked off Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck twice, forced and recovered a fumble, and allowed one of the most explosive offenses in the league to gain just 304 total yards. The biggest surprise of the game, though, was Buffalo’s offensive efficiency. They totaled 147 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, and quarterback Tyrod Taylor played more like a Pro Bowler than a player making his first career NFL start. The Bills will have another big test in Week 2 when they host the Patriots, but we are convinced that this team will be postseason-bound in 2015.

The Dolphins spent big money this offseason, and 2015 appears to be a make-or-break year for head coach Joe Philbin. The addition of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (pictured above) gives Miami arguably the best front seven in the entire league, but the key to their success will come down to the effectiveness of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins offense. If they are able to consistently move the ball and can put up 20 or more points per game, the Dolphins will likely end their six-year postseason drought in 2015.

Lastly, the Jets could be one of the rare teams that goes from having a top-six draft pick to earning a spot in the postseason. The additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie elevate them from being a strong defense to a dominating defense. Like the Dolphins, the key to the Jets’ success will be their offense – more specifically, their quarterback play. Their offensive line is strong, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are a solid 1-2 punch at running back, and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker give the Jets a fairly dynamic pass-catching duo. If Ryan Fitzpatrick and/or Geno Smith can prove to be an effective game manager, this team is talented enough to make a postseason run in 2015.

At the end of the day, the road to the AFC East title still clearly runs through New England. With that being said, the days of the Patriots having to do nothing more than show up to win the division appear to be over. This is now a division that is home to four teams that are legitimately talented enough to be playoff teams in 2015.