By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — One common thought that’s permeated the football world for quite some time now is the idea that the Patriots only win the AFC East every year because it’s a division that perennially is filled with godawful teams that can’t compete.

So as not to argue against the imaginary straw man in the sky, I’ll share this one exchange from one of my chums who hosts the radio show in the afternoon here at 98.5 The Sports Hub:

“That puts you at a disadvantage. This is not a criticism. This is just a fact. This is the thing that gets me, because the schedule just is what it is. It’s not really debatable. Right? Your opponents are good or bad, and your record indicates it, and you’re home or road, like, it’s just, these are things where it’s not anyone opining. This is not an opinion. This is not trolling. This is just what it is. This is what those teams are this year and this is who you’re playing. And it does make you less battle-tested, and I don’t think it helps you come playoff time.

“I’ve started to lose my mind about Patriots fans getting sensitive about their schedule again. Just, every year, it surprises me, I don’t know why I get so agitated by it, but it happens every year. This isn’t even an opinion: The division’s bad. Other divisions are good — or better.
–Michael Felger, Nov. 7, 2016

I don’t mean to single out Felger. This is a common belief.

In fact, as an update, here’s a line from Dan Shaughnessy, written in his Nov. 22 column: “The Patriots certainly play in a terrible division, and the competition around them often appears stunningly inept and incompetent.”

This is an idea that needs to be adjusted.

While nobody would confuse the Bills or Dolphins for Super Bowl favorites, and while the Jets are a spinout that can’t be ignored, the fact is that the AFC East holds up quite well to the majority of other divisions in the NFL. To borrow a phrase, that is not an opinion, and it is not trolling. It is a fact.

While combined records through 11 weeks don’t provide precise apples-to-apples comparisons, considering the number of inter-division games is not exactly equal at this point in time, they still provide a valuable point of comparison from one division to the next. With that in mind, take a look at the combined records and the combined point differentials around the NFL:

AFC EAST: 22-18, plus-66
AFC NORTH: 13-27, minus-133
AFC SOUTH: 18-23, minus-110
AFC WEST: 26-14, plus-128

NFC EAST: 27-12, plus-178
NFC NORTH: 18-22, minus-74
NFC SOUTH: 19-21, plus-10
NFC WEST: 16-22-2, minus-65

As is plain to see, the AFC East is one of just three divisions with a winning record and one of just four divisions with a positive point differential.

Further, the AFC East has just one team with a record worse than .500. The NFC East doesn’t have any, the AFC East and AFC West each have one team under .500, while the other five divisions all have at least two teams under .500. The AFC North doesn’t even have one team that’s above .500. The AFC East, in fact, has wiped the floor with the AFC North this year, going 8-4 so far in that interdivision matchup.

The NFC West, remarkably, has three teams under .500. Yet you don’t hear as many pundits demeaning the first-place standing of the Seahawks based on those weak opponents as much as you hear about the Patriots winning a weak division for yet another year.

It’s nothing new, either. This summer, you saw headlines like this one from CBS Sports: “The AFC East is so bad that the Patriots are still Super Bowl favorites.” That was the story despite the fact that the AFC East was tied for the second-best combined record in the NFL last year and possessed far and away the best point differential in the league. Once again, the division had just one sub-.500 team, while all seven other divisions had at least two.

It’s obvious where the stigma, so to speak, comes from: the Patriots’ unparalleled run of success atop the division. When the same team with the same coach and the same quarterback handily win the division every season and make it look rather easy, then it stands to reason that it was indeed quite easy. But, really, that’s not the case.

And while nobody would argue that the triumvirate of other AFC East teams has been on the Patriots’ level over the years, the fact is they have been at least commensurate and at times better than the teams that make up other divisions. It could be argued — without much difficulty, in fact — that no team has benefited more from being in a weak division over the past 15-plus seasons than the Indianapolis Colts. But instead of the local Indy media making that case, they’re just watching as the Colts hang another banner.

This week, the Patriots will play the Jets, who are an unmitigated disaster. That’s not up for debate. But, when the Patriots emerge with their likely victory over a flattened foe, it won’t be the latest example of the Patriots benefiting from playing in a push-over division. It will simply be the product of the Patriots playing in a scenario that’s not altogether different from the other four or five teams in the NFL which actually have a chance at winning the Super Bowl.

The AFC East is not that bad. The Patriots are just annually that good.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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