Patriots: Division Not What It Used To Be

The New England Patriots face a favorable schedule, largely in part to a division decimated by injury or inept play. The schedule makers who set the Patriots with one of the toughest opening schedules for any team in the history of the league through the first six weeks, couldn't have foreseen the significant drop in talent in the East. The Patriots will have a chance to regain their momentum as they face opponents in what used to be a strong division, and now is just the opposite.

Patriots: Division Not What It Used To Be
By Site Staff

There have been plenty of times over the last decade-plus when the AFC East was considered one of the best, if not the best, divisions in football. Whether it was the Bills, Patriots, Dolphins or Jets leading the way, each season seemed to have at least two of the four battling for division dominance, playoff positioning and Super Bowl bids.

But forget about the times changing, they have flat-out changed through the first two months of 2005. No longer dominant or even difficult, the AFC East is now in a collective dogfight with the NFC North for basement "bragging" rights as the worst division in football with a combined record of 10-16.

With New York's loss Monday night in Atlanta, three of the four division teams are now below .500 for the season and only the Patriots (3-3 overall, 2-2 on the road) have won even a single game on the road.

So while the 3-3 Patriots certainly haven't been playing up to their own standards of recent dominance (17-2 overall in each of the last two seasons) heading into Sunday's first division game of the season, a match with the second-place 3-4 Bills, the defending champs are sitting pretty in the AFC East. Coming off the bye with six division games remaining in the final 10 weeks, New England could seemingly limp toward a third consecutive division title with relative ease.

The fall of the competition in the AFC East can be tied directly to two factors, injuries and quarterback play. In some cases, the two intersect.

Buffalo sent Drew Bledsoe packing this off-season only to find second-year passer J.P. Losman wasn't quite ready for the big stage. Now the Bills are trying to ride journeyman Kelly Holcomb, a solid running game and decent defensive play to success. Through seven games and a 3-4 mark, the questions in upstate New York remain more numerous than the answers.

Miami has used its own veteran passer, Gus Frerotte, in its first six games under new coach Nick Saban on the way to a 2-4 mark. With a decent running game and still-solid group of veteran defenders, things may be moving in the right direction over the long run for the Dolphins, but that doesn't mean the team is anywhere near a true threat in 2005.

New York was expected to be best suited to give New England a run for the division title 2005. But injuries to starting quarterback Chad Pennington and backup Jay Fiedler left the Jets scrambling to sign veteran Vinny Testaverde in an attempt to just stay afloat in the early going. Now with Testaverde banged up and Fiedler yet to return, things could get even uglier for coach Herm Edwards and Co. Hopes of division dominance in the Big Apple got lost in the weekly injury report.

So with all that transpiring around them, last weekend the Patriots sat at home during the bye, and in doing so moved into sole possession of first place in the mediocre-at-best AFC East with the Bills falling in Oakland, while the Jets and Dolphins also lost. And considering the defending champs still sport the only true top starting quarterback in the division - Tom Brady - things are looking up in New England over the second half of the season.

Even if the Patriots don't hit a run of healthy fortune in the coming weeks and months, they could still likely limp, crawl or roll their way to an AFC East division title. The bottom line is that even if New England has fallen from its perch atop the NFL mountain as the undisputed champion, it's still the unquestioned class of the AFC East. With that title comes a playoff spot and a chance to defend the team's back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Getting into the postseason tourney gives every team a chance at ultimate glory. As professional wrestler Ric Flair used to say, "To be The Man you have to beat The Man."

Heading into a six-of-10 stretch of division games, the Patriots are still far and away The Man in the fallen AFC East.

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