With no sports and nothing but time, due to the global pandemic we’ve been living through, I have tried to figure out how to approach the 2020 NFL season. A part of me thought about ranking every team from 1-32, another wanted to rank each team per conference, but since we’re here I might as well just do every division in the league.
Part VIII: AFC East
1. Buffalo Bills
2019 record: 10-6
2020 over/under win total: 8.5
The Bills kind of came out of nowhere last year to win 10 games, which was expected if you don’t mind me being self-referential for a second:
[The Bill’s] blueprint for success is and always will be a reflection of the city of Buffalo itself — a blue-collar approach, with a strong running game and solid defense — so if Josh Allen can scrape out a few wins then I could see them going over 7.5 wins, and even challenging for one of the two AFC Wild Card spots.
They did go 10-6, but exactly zero of those wins came against playoff teams. I won’t blame them for that because they can’t control who they play, but I feel like it has to be part of their story. They went 10-2 against the likes of the Bengals, Redskins, Dolphins, Jets, and Giants, and 0-4 against the Ravens, Patriots (twice) and Eagles. Can’t fault a team for winning 10 games, but they did play one of the weakest schedules in the league.
This year their over/under jumped up to 8.5 wins, but they were firmly in the 9- 9.5-win range and were favorites to win the AFC East until a few days ago when the Patriots signed Cam Newton off the scrapheap (which I’ll get into in a bit). It’s undeniable that head coach Sean McDermott is one of the best in the business, and one could make a case that QB Josh Allen is on the brink of taking his game from middle-of-the-pack into the upper crest of the league.
A few years ago they traded down in the draft with the Chiefs, a pick that Kansas City ultimately selected Patrick Mahomes with, but with the 26th spot — where the Chiefs were supposed to draft — the Bills selected cornerback Tre’Davious White, who has become one of the elite corners in the league. As a contender this year they did the opposite, trading away a bundle of draft picks (including their first rounder) to the Vikings for disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
Diggs will give Allen a much-needed deep threat, opening the field for solid #2 WR John Brown and solid slot receiver Cole Beasely. It should also help create space for home run-hitting running back Devin Singletary, who last year racked up a phenomenal 5.1 yards per carry on 151 attempts. Buffalo’s defense should be solid, but if the offense can go from 19.6 points per game (their 2019 total) to somewhere in the mid-20’s this is a surefire playoff team who will not be an easy out in January.
2. Miami Dolphins
2019 record: 5-11
2020 over/under: 6
With a new head coach, and the fact that they traded away their two best players (Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers and Laremi Tunsil to the Texans), everyone expected the Dolphins to be Tanking For Tua, the prized quarterback out of Alabama. As it turned out they ripped off wins in 5 of their final 9 games, and ended up drafting Tua anyway — aided by his season-ending injury.
I look at the Dolphins as a team in a true rebuild. They are the closest thing the NFL currently has to a college program. Last year was supposed to be their tank year, and this season is where they figure to take the next step and aim to be a .500 team. With their three first round picks in the draft they took a QB, an offensive tackle and a cornerback, and with their two second rounders they selected a guard and a defensive tackle. This is a team building at core positions, from the offensive line to the defensive line to the secondary.
In free agency they took perhaps the best corner available, Cowboy’s corner Byron Jones, along with ex-Patriot linebacker Kyle Van Noy and ex-Chief defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah. I’m not saying this team is going to win 10 games this year, but they have the blueprint in place to be competitive every Sunday and it wouldn’t surprise me if they found a way to 8-8.
3. New England Patriots
2019 record: 12-4
2020 over/under: 9.5
It was a dominant start to the Patriots’ 2019 season. They started 8-0 and the media was asking if they had the best defense of all-time.
In retrospect, the first half of their schedule was a cakewalk. They twice beat the Jets, they beat the Dolphins and Redskins and Giants, they beat Cleveland and Buffalo, and they beat the Steelers. They played one playoff team out of that group, and won at home by six points.
The second half of their season was less forgiving. They lost to the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans, before giving up home field advantage in a crushing Week 17 loss to the Dolphins, paving the way for the Chiefs to get the first round playoff bye which they parlayed into a Super Bowl title. It’s hard to imagine the high that the Patriots were on in the first eight weeks of the season, only to have it crumble down, culminating in a home playoff loss to the 6th-seeded Titans.
New England’s offseason revolved around their very public divorce from six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, a departure that shocked the football world. That left them with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer as their quarterback options, and most of us assumed head coach Bill Belichick would do his thing and roll into a 10-6 season with some no-name taking the majority of the snaps.
That all the changed the other day when they signed Cam Newton out of the ether, and signed him to an incredibly team-friendly contract to boot. Now, I don’t think the addition of Newton automatically means he’s a super upgrade over Stidham; there’s a chance he’s only a marginal improvement. Instead what he offers is upside: I don’t know if the Pats were going to win 5 games or 9 with Jarrett Stidham, but I do know their ability to win 10 or 11 improves greatly with Cam.
I’m probably in the minority here, but I think New England is now the second-best team in the AFC behind only the Chiefs. Cam Newton is going to be extremely motivated playing on a cheap one-year deal, and Bill Belichick wants to prove that he is still the best coach of all-time even without Tom Brady as his quarterback. I think the Ravens take a step back in an improved division, I think the AFC South is a dump, and I think the Newton-Belichick marriage is going to produce an AFC Championship contender.
4. New York Jets
2019 record: 7-9
2020 over/under: 6.5
Back in April, if again you’ll forgive me for referencing myself, I wrote at length about the Jets and why it didn’t make sense that their over/under was only 6.5 wins. My theory was they played pretty well in the second half of last season, and QB Sam Darnold is entering his third year and there’s a good chance he continues to improve.
That wasn’t the strange part, though. What was weird to me was, according to lookahead odds, the Jets were underdogs — i.e. favored to lose — in 15 of their 16 games in 2020. The only game they are favored in is a home contest against the Dolphins. I’m not an expert on odds or betting or much of anything, really, but to me it seems something is wrong when a team has an expected win total of 6.5 yet are only favored to win 1 out of 16. My take, back in April at least, was someone could make money just blindly betting the Jets plus the points and come out, at worst, with better than even money.
I’m not particularly thrilled with the Jets roster, and frankly less so now than when I wrote that three months ago, but I also don’t think they are playing a world-beater schedule. Sure, they have the Patriots and Bills twice (like every other year), yet they also have home games against all of Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, Arizona, and Cleveland — all conceivably winnable — and road games against both Los Angeles teams as well as Miami and Indy. They aren’t going to run the table here, but there is certainly a path to 7 or 8 wins in there.
So I’m not going out on any limbs for the Jets, but I am willing to stick to my original gut feeling from April and predict they go over 6.5 wins. Every year a couple quarterbacks come out of the woodwork and over perform, and how many better options are there than a former high first round pick entering his third season?
- Patriots: 11-5
- Bills: 10-6
- Jets: 8-8
- Dolphins: 7-9