Sean McVay has only coached the LA Rams against an AFC East team once and he’d like the next four results against that division to go a lot better than his last one. Perhaps 2020 is providing a fantastic opportunity to do that, especially given that that AFC East team doesn’t look like it used to.
If Tom Brady was the one dominating the AFC East for the last two decades, then just imagine what those three awful teams look like now with no Tom Brady. Could it be four awful teams?
That is what I am expecting.
If you were to put together one team from all four rosters in the division, I’m not even sure that team would be good enough to win most other divisions.
QB - Cam Newton or Sam Darnold or Josh Allen or Tua Tagovailoa?
RB - Le’Veon Bell
WR - DeVante Parker, Stefon Diggs, Julian Edelman
TE - Mike Gesicki?
OL - Dion Dawkins, Mekhi Becton, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Mitch Morse
DL - Mario Addison, Jerry Hughes, Quinnen Williams, Ed Oliver
LB - Tremaine Edmunds, Brandon Copeland
CB - Stephon Gilmore, Tre’Davious White, Byron Jones
S - Devin McCourty, Jordan Poyer
Don’t get me wrong, you could probably swap out a player or three on this roster for somebody you like better, somebody I missed, but I am not sure that I missed any glaring names from this list. Can you get a playoff berth with lockdown corners and potential? Even pulling from all four rosters there seem to be huge holes on this all-division team at quarterback (at least based on what we know of these players as pros in the present day), tight end, edge, and linebacker, while hoping the offensive line can come together well enough to aide Bell in a bounceback campaign.
I wouldn’t be overly excited by the receivers or lack of proof at the NFL level by the defensive tackles either.
Now divide it by four and that’s a quarter of the LA Rams schedule.
In Jeff Fisher’s final season, the Rams went 1-3 against the AFC East, beating the New York Jets 9-6 in quarterback Bryce Petty’s first career start. It was LA’s only win in their final 12 games that season but the Rams and the AFC East are both quite different nowadays.
How do they appear to match up next season?
Week 3 - at Buffalo Bills
Week 8 - at Miami Dolphins
Week 14 - vs New England Patriots (TNF)
Week 15 - vs New York Jets
I’d lean to the Bills as the best team in the division now. They ranked 13th in DVOA in 2019, including 21st on offense and sixth on defense. That defense was fifth against the pass thanks to all-pro cornerback Tre’Davious White and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, among others. Those “others” include linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, a 2019 Pro Bowler at only 21 years old, safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, edge rusher Jerry Hughes, and some players who are gone now.
That includes defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, their leader in sacks at 9.5, and Shaq Lawson, who had 6.5 sacks and is now with the Miami Dolphins. But they’ve got Ed Oliver, the ninth overall pick in 2019, and brought in Mario Addison, whose averaged 10 sacks per season in the last four years.
Perhaps more strange is that Buffalo also appears to have the best offense in the division, including the best quarterback. In what other divisions could Josh Allen be considered the best QB? That would be none. But he was good enough to help the Bills go 10-6 and make the playoffs, throwing 20 touchdowns and rushing for 510 yards with nine more scores.
Allen accounted for more touchdowns in 2019 than Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz, Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Tom Brady, Baker Mayfield and Philip Rivers combined. Okay, maybe not combined, but Allen really did score more touchdowns on his own than any of those individual quarterbacks last season. That’s not to say he was super valuable, his touchdown rate and interception rate were both about average, his yards per attempt were well below, but he was productive and only 23.
He’s not only a little bit more experienced this season, he’s also got the best weapon of his career in Stefon Diggs and probably the best supporting cast (John Brown, Cole Beasley, Devin Singletary, an at least decent defensive line, rookie running back Zack Moss) in the division.
If there’s a team in the AFC East that can go 12-4 this year, it is probably the Patriots. But if you didn’t know anything about Bill Belichick and were only looking at the rosters, I think you’d have a hard time choosing anyone other than Buffalo. Should the Rams go on the road and beat the Bills in Week 3, a division sweep may be in reach.
After spending the first half of the year hearing about how the Patriots were “so good it’s unfair” and “the Dolphins are the worst team I’ve ever seen,” Miami and New England had equal 5-4 records in the final nine games. Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is mostly relying on that in-season improvement and in-house development to carry Miami to a winning record in 2020.
But that seems unlikely with a quarterback competition between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa.
Outside of Tua and Parker, the Dolphins don’t seem to have any stars or developing stars on offense. They drafted offensive tackle Austin Jackson in the first round too, but his time could be several years away. They traded for running back Matt Breida and signed Jordan Howard, but they don’t seem to have that Derrick Henry ability to carry an offense for short periods of time.
With potentially the worst offensive line in football and a veteran QB known for so many things besides being great at winning football games (139 career regular season starts, zero postseason appearances), the Dolphins could struggle to win games outside of the division.
Some may view the defense as “further along” but Miami finished 32nd in DVOA on that side of the ball, dead last against the pass. Their big free agent signing was cornerback Byron Jones, and they may also have corner Xavien Howard back from PUP by the time they play the Rams, but again they lack stars or perceived stars.
Cornerback Noah Igbinoghene was their other first round pick this year. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins went in the first for them a year ago. Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah were added in free agency. Barring a masterful design by Brian Flores, I’m not sure anything more than regression will be responsible for the Dolphins improving on defense and cracking the top-20 would be surprising.
The Patriots had the most notable loss in free agency — one that’ll be talked about the same as Joe Montana on the Chiefs or Brett Favre on the Vikings — and also the most notable losses to COVID-19 opt outs. What’s left?
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore is the biggest name left in New England, though he’s not quite alone. Edelman, Thuney, David Andrews, Sony Michel, James White, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Shaq Mason, Mohamed Sanu, Isaiah Wynn, and N’Keal Harry will attempt to keep the Patriots atop the East. Cam Newton was added to give Belichick an option other than Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer, only because he was so affordable. But he hasn’t appeared healthy in well more than a year and even when he was in good condition, not playing as well as he did in 2015.
To project Newton as the Patriots starter in Week 14, and to be effective along the way, is to make a number of assumptions that could have long odds.
Nobody’s known how to control a division in the way that Belichick knows how to control his division, so I certainly won’t count them out as winning the AFC East. But outside of beating Miami, New York, and Buffalo, I am not sure Belichick has the talent here to post a winning record outside of the division.
Finally, while some peg Sam Darnold as the best quarterback in the division and the Jets as a sleeper to finish in first, that is a testament to the other three teams more than it is a sign of New York as a difficult opponent for most of their competition. Regardless of how many times they swap out head coaches or general managers, the Jets incompetence has still carried on for decades.
They haven’t won the AFC East since 2002 and they’ve only finished in first place in their division twice since 1970. Even when they acquire rare talent, they struggle to convince those players to say, the latest evidence of which being the trade of safety Jamal Adams to the Seahawks for two first round picks.
But what good will those picks be in the hands of the Jets?
While Miami was 32nd on defense last season, New York ranked 31st offensively by DVOA, only sneaking ahead of the Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges Pittsburgh Steelers. The Jets were 32nd in passing DVOA despite Darnold being a former third overall pick in his second season and Duck Hodges being ... not that. By either DVOA or DYAR, Darnold was as bad or worse than names like Dwayne Haskins, Kyle Allen, Daniel Jones, Joe Flacco, or Rudolph in 2019.
What’s different this time?
The Jets rebuilt the offensive line, drafting Becton in the first round and signing George Fant, Greg Van Roten, and Connor McGovern in free agency. Only left guard Alex Lewis looks set to return to his 2019 starting position. New York also signed Breshad Perriman — coming off of limited, albeit interesting back to back seasons with the Browns and Bucs — and drafted Denzel Mims in the second round to replace Brandon Marshall and Robby Anderson at receiver. Free agent running back Frank Gore has rushed for fewer yards in three successive seasons now and is looking to make the team as Bell’s backup at age 37.
Worst offense in football? That all depends on who wins the battle between Darnold Deniers and Darnold Darlings.
Defensively things may be even worse. Quinnen Williams was the third overall pick a year after Darnold and was quiet as a rookie. Adams is gone. I’m not saying that’s the defense but that’s kinda all anyone may need to hear. The Jets appear to have a ceiling of winning the division at 8-8 or picking first in 2021.
And that may apply to all four clubs here.
Whether it is the Rams, 49ers, Seahawks or Cardinals, I see the AFC East as a favorable matchup for the NFC West. It may be that if the West is beating up on each other then the winner comes from who knocks out all four AFC opponents and who stumbles to 2-2 in those games. Even if non-conference games carry the least amount of weight for playoff tiebreakers, losing a game to a team you should beat won’t help any franchise make their case for the postseason.
I think if the Rams can swing through Buffalo with a win in Week 3, they have great odds to sweep the East, especially given their short Thursday Night turnaround at home against the Patriots a few months later.
NFL fans have spent a lot of time talking about individual teams going 0-16. But could 0-16 happen between division matchups in a given year? That may be a fate the East will only narrowly avoid.
What will the Rams record be against the AFC East?
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