The Patriots got an early New Year’s gift on the final day of 2012.
New England opened 2013 hard at work during its bye week in preparation of a divisional-round playoff game on Jan. 13. The Jets and Bills entered the new year looking to go in a new direction.
On “Black Monday,” the Jets fired GM Mike Tannenbaum, and the Bills fired head coach Chan Gailey and the rest of his staff. The Dolphins made their wholesale changes last year but have plenty of question marks heading into the ’13 season.
The Patriots simply keep cruising along.
This past season, the Patriots won the AFC East for the fourth year in a row, and 10th time in the past 12 years. New England went 12-4. Meanwhile, their division rivals — the Jets, Bills and Dolphins — combined to go 19-29.
The Jets were a circus most of the year — the one thing they publicly said they wanted to avoid. The Tim Tebow-Mark Sanchez situation was a disaster from the start, injuries set them back and bad losses on national TV made it worse. Their postseason handling of front-office moves has been far from admirable. While every other team has addressed the media, owner Woody Johnson and Ryan have not spoken, and will not until next Tuesday. To add to the comedy, Ryan is reportedly in the Bahamas.
The Bills had high expectations in 2012 and fell well short, with their defense flopping and QB Ryan Fitzpatrick continuing to struggle. The failure to live up to expectations cost Gailey and his staff their jobs. The Bills seem more organized than the Jets, though, passing control to president/CEO Russ Brandon on Jan. 1 and getting moving on the head-coaching interview process in an accelerated, transparent manner. They might seem better prepared for this situation than the Jets, but still, it’s the Bills who own the league’s longest playoff drought, at 13 years and counting.
The Dolphins surprised in a positive way in 2012 with a 7-9 record, entering the season with the bar set extremely low. While Joe Philbin, Jeff Ireland and Ryan Tannehill aren’t going anywhere, Miami has several key free agents to make decisions on and could feature a much different roster in 2012. Tannehill showed flashes, but not enough to give Miami fans confidence they finally found the franchise quarterback the team has lacked since Dan Marino.
The start of 2013 reminded us that the Patriots are the beacon of stability and class in the AFC East, and that doesn’t seem to be changing in the new year. In the eyes of the Jets, Bills and Dolphins, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can’t leave any sooner.
Earlier this season, I wrote about the battle for second place in the AFC East, the best of the worst. The Dolphins “won” the battle, but none of the three teams appears ready to embark on a playoff run in 2013, having finished a distant five games or more behind the pace-setting Patriots.
The trifecta of teams that look up at the Patriots have a common thread of instability and a lack of success at quarterback. While Brady has won three Super Bowls — and played in two other title games — the rest of the division has played musical chairs at the position over the past 12 years without much to show for it.
The Jets proved in both 2010 and ’11 that an “elite” quarterback isn’t necessary to topple the mighty Patriots, but Gang Green has taken some mighty steps back. The Bills have shown the offensive firepower at times to match the Patriots score for score, but the disparity between Brady and Fitzpatrick is great, and rears its ugly head, from a Bills perspective, when Fitzpatrick throws crucial, late-game interceptions. Plus, Buffalo's defense has been no match for the Pats. The defenses for the Jets and Dolphins have kept games close with the Patriots, but not consistently enough, and they don't have the offenses to win a track meet against the explosive New England "O."
What also must make fans of the three teams steaming mad is the fact that the Patriots seem to find diamonds in the rough, or plug someone in and turn him into a star, even without high draft picks. A prime recent example is that of Jets cast-off Danny Woodhead, who has become the Patriots' treasure.
Brady is 35, and seems to have a few good seasons left. The Patriots’ defense is young and getting better, and the offense has a new star in RB Stevan Ridley. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins all have their strengths, but stability is not one of them. If Tannehill continues to blossom and the Dolphins can keep their core players, they can challenge the Pats. When the Jets and Bills figure out their QB situations, there are enough weapons (on offense for Buffalo, defense for New York) to make things interesting. That’s a lot of “ifs,” however, a word that isn’t used much in Foxborough.
Only one new team entered the AFC playoffs this season that was not there in 2011 — the Colts, who were a perennial playoff team under Peyton Manning — so the Patriots are not alone in sustained success, but their domination over the AFC East is pretty unprecedented in this era of the NFL.
We might be entering a new year, but there is no new sheriff in town in the AFC East, not even one waiting in the wings.
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