By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Going as far back as, say, 2013, AFC East teams dreamed about it. They salivated at the thought. They got chills up and down their spines just pondering a life where Tom Brady wasn’t slaughtering them on a regular basis.
Back then, Brady was entering his late 30s. And quarterbacks, no matter how kooky their diet or exercise regimen may be, tend to precipitously get very bad at playing the sport in their late 30s. Brady’s 2013 numbers — 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 87.3 passer rating — lent some hope to the poor Bills, Jets and Dolphins that there was indeed a light at the end of the tunnel from this bullyrific era driven by Brady and Bill Belichick.
Yet as we knew, Brady underwent an absurd late-career renaissance, putting forth arguably the best stretch of football of his Hall of Fame life from Week 5 of the 2014 season through Super Bowl LII vs. the Eagles. They won two Super Bowls, three conference championships, and of course four division crowns during that stretch. And seemingly just for funsies, they won another Super Bowl in 2018 and then nabbed an 11th straight division title in 2019 — extending their own absurd record.
Life was tough for AFC East foes. The Bills had had some moments. The Dolphins had had some positive seasons. Even the Jets did, too. Yet the dominant and — frankly — inconsiderate reign atop the division looked like it might never end. Even in a “bad” Patriots season last year, they went 12-4 overall and 5-1 against the division.
Alas, the trio of longtime AFC East losers finally emerged from that dark tunnel, with Brady bouncing for Tampa and with Bill Belichick’s offense looking undermanned and overmatched on a weekly basis. And the rewards have been instantaneous.
Up at the top of the division, you’ve got the Buffalo Bills, who are riding high after a prime-time win over the Steelers. They have a top-10 offense, a ball-hawking defense, and a swell of confidence in their young QB who has taken the largest strides of improvement in the entire NFL.
For the first time in a long time, the Buffalo Bills are happy. (It’s a damn shame that 70,000 lunatics aren’t filling their stadium, though. That’s a legitimate loss for the sport of football in 2020.)
Down in Miami, things aren’t all the way great, but the Dolphins are well on their way. Brian Flores looks like the rare highly competent Bill Belichick disciple, a man who learned a tremendous amount from his former boss while still maintaining his own sense of individualism and personality. Flores was dealt a pretty awful hand, too; last September, everyone in the football world wondered if the Dolphins might be the worst team ever. Yet with an absolutely gutted roster in the midst of an obvious rebuild, the Dolphins won five of their last nine games, including a win in Foxboro in Week 17 that dealt a massive blow to the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes. That Miami victory took the bye away from the Patriots and gave it to the eventual-champion Chiefs, and it also instilled a certain sense of identity for the Dolphins.
Now, the Dolphins are in the playoff picture, and another win this weekend over the Patriots will go a long way in cementing that spot. With a potential stud at QB in Tua (we won’t make any grand proclamations just yet) and a real leader at head coach, there’s real hope in Miami for the first time since … Dan Marino retired? At least since the Ricky Williams era.
And then there’s the Jets. The Jets … well, the Jets suck. But they’ve actually been so good at sucking that it’ll probably land them Trevor Lawrence. Now granted, it’s possible — nay, likely — that the Jets, just by virtue of being the Jets, will ruin Trevor Lawrence the same way they ruined Sam Darnold. With no leadership in the organization at all, the Jets may well continue to be a rudderless ship for the next, 5, 10, or 500 years. But in the immediate future? The franchise at least has a national champion, bona fide star QB to look forward to. That’s better than most anything else that could have been said about the Jets in the past decade. (This is all assuming that the Patriots don’t throw the Week 17 game and vault the Jaguars into the spot for the No. 1 pick. That would be humorous. To say the least.)
Brady has, of course, moved on. He hasn’t exactly terrorized the NFC South the way he used to treat his divisional foes. He lost twice to the Saints, thus paving the way to a wild-card spot in the postseason. But he’s still quite good at playing football, and it must bring a smile to the faces of everyone involved with the football operations in Miami and Buffalo whenever Brady turns in another sterling performance for a team that is not based in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Whether the Patriots can climb out of this rut and immediately return to AFC East supremacy in 2021? It’s surely possible, what with the forthcoming cap space and the (hopeful) end of COVID and who-knows-what-else Bill Belichick has up his sleeve. But it’s also possible that the run is all-the-way over, and that the era of the Patriots ruling the division with an iron fist is nothing but a dark memory.
Surely, the rest of the AFC East always dreamed the day would come where Brady was gone and the division became a multi-horse race. They likely didn’t think it would all happen so abruptly.
(Again, except for the Jets. Who suck. So, so bad.)
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
It was a 7-9 week for your faithful pick man last week. Ergo, my vow of (mostly) silence on the picks continues for yet another week.
It’s your loss, really.
LAS VEGAS (-3) over L.A. Chargers
Buffalo (-7) over DENVER
GREEN BAY (-9) over Carolina
Tampa Bay (-5.5) over ATLANTA
San Francisco (-3) over DALLAS
TENNESSEE (-10.5) over Detroit
Houston (+7.5) over INDIANAPOLIS
MIAMI (-2.5) over New England
Chicago (+3.5) over MINNESOTA
Seattle (-5.5) over WASHINGTON
BALTIMORE (-13.5) over Jacksonville
New York Jets (+17) over L.A. Rams
Philadelphia (+6.5) over ARIZONA
NEW ORLEANS (+3.5) over Kansas City
Cleveland (-4.5) over New York Giants
Pittsburgh (-12) over CINCINNATI
Last week: 7-9