For the first time in decades, the gap between the Patriots and their three division rivals seems extremely surmountable — but it’s still there.
You know who’s a smart man? Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane.
On Thursday, Beane was asked about all the hype surrounding his franchise this offseason.
After finishing just two games back of the New England Patriots in the final 2019 division standings — not to mention making the playoffs for the second time in three years — the Bills were aggressive in trading for former Vikings superstar receiver Stefon Diggs last month.
The addition of Diggs now gives third-year quarterback Josh Allen one of the best receiver trios in the league in Diggs, John Brown, and Cole Beasley. Buffalo also had a top-10 rushing offense last season and a defense that was top-three in both yards and points allowed.
Add to this impressive roster the fact that Tom Brady, Public Enemy No. 1 in Buffalo for the past 20 years, is now suiting up for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a whole other conference, and it’s easy to understand why hope is at an all-time high in western New York right now when it comes to football.
Just don’t count Beane among those willing to count out the Patriots just yet. Here’s what he told reporters on Thursday, via ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques:
"“The team to beat in the East is the Patriots. And until somebody beats them, they are the team to beat. And as long as Bill Belichick’s there, you’re talking about probably the greatest head coach of all time that was paired with the greatest quarterback of all time. So until we beat them, we’ve done nothing, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.”"
Facts are facts. The Bills haven’t won anything other than the offseason in free agency (among AFC East teams, at least). Buffalo last won the actual division 25 years ago back in 1995 — a full five seasons before Brady and Bill Belichick even arrived on the scene.
Even with Brady playing in another division, the Bills will have to beat the other Bill. Belichick notably went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as his starting quarterback in 2008 when Brady missed the season — a fact that’s not lost on Beane.
The Miami Dolphins’ Brian Flores, a former assistant coach behind Belichick for several seasons in New England, was also loathe to say anything negative about the Patriots after the team stumbled down the stretch last year, lost in the Wild Card round, and then said goodbye to Brady.
The only AFC East team that hasn’t come right out and paid any lip service to New England is the New York Jets, which shouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone anyway.
So, with that all being said, are the Patriots a safe bet to capture their 12th consecutive division crown this season?
Far from it.
The loss of Brady cannot be minimized or mitigated, despite Belichick’s continuing presence at the helm. Jarrett Stidham is an unproven commodity, whereas Brian Hoyer is a proven mediocre backup QB.
Perhaps Stidham lights the league on fire this season, but a more likely outcome is he plays like a lightly-regarded former fourth-round college draftee replacing a living legend.
New England also had several problem areas on the roster last season, not a one of which has been solved yet.
The receiver depth chart is uninspiring as its currently constructed (Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu Sr., and N’Keal Harry are the top trio), the tight end group is arguably the worst in the league (Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo), and the offensive line is riddled with injury concerns (primarily David Andrews and Isaiah Wynn).
The defense, easily the strength of the team in 2019, could take a step back after the recent departures of key contributors like Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, and Duron Harmon.
Still, this is a team with a winning culture. The Patriots are just a season removed from winning the Super Bowl, and they still have some excellent players on their 2020 roster (Edelman, Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Joe Thuney immediately spring to mind).
Just as Beane wisely pointed out, the AFC East still runs through Foxborough until proven otherwise.