Everyone is Still Chasing the Patriots in the AFC East
Written by Dennis Waszac Jr. for AP
Many of the faces change every year in Miami, Buffalo, New York — and even in Foxborough — but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are constants in the division.
So are AFC East titles for the Patriots. They've won nine in a row, and 14 of the past 15. And, it certainly appears they're an excellent bet to add to that haul this season.
Not that Belichick is too comfortable with any of that.
"Each year is a new year, and each year has its own challenges," said the coach, whose 278 overall victories are third-most in NFL history. "Again, each year we all have to regain our — to the best we can — our ability to perform our jobs. That's what I'm trying to do. I think that's what all of the players, all of the coaches, we're all trying to do that."
The Patriots don't lack motivation.
After all, they're coming off a Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and had an interesting offseason. Brady sat out workouts, tight end Rob Gronkowski hinted at retirement and skipped voluntary workouts before rejoining his teammates, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was hired as Detroit's coach, and wide receiver Julian Edelman was suspended four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancers.
Brady turned 41 on Aug. 3 and has shown no signs of slowing, although some wonder if this might be the year he finally regresses. Well, not those who are around the five-time Super Bowl champion.
"He's hands-down just remarkable, it's amazing," Gronkowski said. "At age 41, I mean, there's coaches younger than us, younger than him on the roster. He looks younger than the coaches, he looks younger than everyone. The way he's moving, how just reliable he is at all times is just unbelievable and something to look up to."
Here are a few other things to know about the AFC East:
One of the biggest questions for New England heading into the season is who'll catch on in the passing game.
Gone are Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt, Eric Decker retired just a few weeks after joining the Patriots, Jordan Matthews was released early in camp and Edelman is out the first four games.
Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson figure to be the primary options among wide receivers — unless the Patriots add someone before the start of the regular season.
Still, Gronkowski will once again be Brady's main man, and rookie running back Sony Michel could see lots of passes his way once he's healthy from a knee issue.
"You've got to go out there and show it on the practice field," Brady said, "so that we can all gain trust in each other."
Ryan Tannehill is back under center for Miami after being sidelined since December 2016 because of two injuries to his left knee.
The Dolphins are banking on him having a big-time comeback, or at least be better than Jay Cutler was last season while filling in. But Tannehill's durability is a concern, and if he goes down again, Brock Osweiler and David Fales are the fallback options.
Some good news, though: The offensive line, anchored by veteran newcomer Josh Sitton, could be the best Tannehill has played behind. The Dolphins also added Amendola, Albert Wilson, Frank Gore and rookie Mike Gesicki at the skill positions, which should add some playmaking options — especially with DeVante Parker uncertain to be ready for the start of the season because of a broken finger.
"It's a lot of fun," Tannehill said. "With so many playmakers, it's just a matter of getting the ball in their hands and letting them go to work."
SLING IT AGAIN, SAM
The Jets traded up three spots to get to No. 3 in the draft, hoping to get a potential franchise quarterback. After Cleveland took Baker Mayfield and the Giants went with running back Saquon Barkley, Sam Darnold fell right into New York's lap — getting the guy it wanted all along.
The 21-year-old Darnold was given every opportunity to win the starting job in a three-way competition with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, and the rookie did nothing but impress the coaching staff this summer. The former USC star is the future of the franchise — and that could mean right now.
"He's everything that you're looking for in a young quarterback," offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates said, "as far as the ability to go out there and the game is not too big for him."
WHO'S IN THE HUDDLE?
The Bills traded Tyrod Taylor to Cleveland in the offseason, then traded up five spots to draft Josh Allen with the seventh pick.
The strong-armed former Wyoming star is raw and remains a work in progress, displayed in a shaky start against Cincinnati in the third preseason game. Playing behind a patchwork offensive line didn't help, but Buffalo might have to open the season with the rookie watching from the sideline.
Newcomer AJ McCarron and returning backup Nathan Peterman could be the starter when the Bills — who snapped a 17-year playoff drought — open at Baltimore on Sept. 9.
Whoever is under center will have LeSean McCoy in the backfield. Even at 30, he's expected to be a workhorse. A hip/groin injury limited him in the preseason, but he's expected to be ready for the Ravens. Also, an off-field issue regarding his ex-girlfriend being hurt in a home invasion in July, hasn't been much of a distraction.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Bills.
AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golen, John Wawrow and Steven Wine contributed.