NFL

Examining The Odds: AFC East

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Now that NFL draft season is over and rosters are taking shape, it’s a good time to take stock of how the divisional races are stacking up across the league. Las Vegas recently released the odds for each division, and we’re going to break them down one by one, starting with the AFC East.

Once one of the most competitive divisions in football, the AFC East has been an easy choice for the oddsmakers for a while. However, even with the defending Super Bowl champs at the still sitting at top of the division, a changing of the guard could be coming.

THE FAVORITE
New England Patriots 4:9

The New England Patriots have established a run of dominance at the top of the AFC East that is nearly unparalleled in the history of the league. In fact, if the Pats win one more division crown this coming season, they would tie the 1970s Los Angeles Rams (1973-79) for most consecutive division titles with seven. The defending Super Bowl Champions are the odds on favorite to do just that, but there is also some reason to be skeptical.

While the Pats try to make history, they’ll face an uphill climb and history isn’t exactly on their side. As parity has ruled the NFL over the last several years it’s seemingly become tougher for the defending champion to bounce back after such a grueling title winning season to repeat their performance. In fact, four of the last six Super Bowl winners have failed to win their division the next season.

New England is in prime position to join that club, due to myriad factors. First, there’s the fallout from deflate-gate and depending on the outcome of quarterback Tom Brady’s appeal of his four-game suspension, the Patriots could begin the season with second-year QB Jimmy Garoppolo as their starter for the first four games.

Without Brady, the Pats offense will have to rely more on their running game, but that’s a complicated matter as well. Two of New England’s most significant personnel losses this offseason are to their running back committee. They watched Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley both depart, which will certainly challenge the team’s propensity to plug and play any running back they can fit into their scheme. LaGarrette Blount returns to lead the group, though he’ll also serve a suspension (1 game) to begin the season. Jonas Gray, who broke out midway through the 2014 season before finding himself in Bill Belichick’s doghouse for the rest of the year will also be back and the Pats have added former Saints RB Travaris Cadet to the committee. New England patched together more from less in the running game before, but they’ll need somebody to step up for this group to succeed.

The Pats are also looking at a lot of turnover on their Super Bowl winning defense. New England managed to retain safety Devin McCourty, but gone are the team’s two stalwart cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. They’ll be replaced by some combination of Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, third year man Logan Ryan and free agent addition Bradley Fletcher, three players the team can only hope are ready to take a step up. But it’s doubtful the Patriots can expect near the production out of that trio in the secondary. New England also lost Vince Wilfork up front, a significant blow to their stout run defense.

With all that in mind, this appears to be the most vulnerable a Patriots team has been in quite some time, and it’s possible that this is the year the AFC East becomes competitive again. Because while New England took some major losses this offseason, all three other teams in the division got better.

BEST CHANCE TO CHALLENGE
Miami Dolphins 4:1

The team most likely to unseat the Pats for the division title is Miami. Coming off yet another mediocre 8-8 season, the Dolphins made significant moves on both sides of the ball this offseason that should push them to their first winning season in seven years. The addition of Ndamukong Suh strengthens the defensive front, making a defense that was on the fringe of the Top 10 last season that much better. Miami’s one weakness on defense is in the secondary, where the’ll have to find a cornerback to complement Brent Grimes after Cortland Finnegan retired.

But it’s on the offensive end that Miami has made the most progress this offseason, adding a slew of weapons for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. By trading for wide receiver Kenny Stills, drafting wide receiver DeVante Parker and signing wide receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jordan Cameron, the Dolphins quickly turned their receiving corps, which already had emerging talent Jarvis Landry, into one of the team’s biggest strengths. Miami also strengthened their running game with the draft selection of Jay Ajayi to team with Lamar Miller in the backfield.

The Dolphins so also have some question marks for Miami along their offensive line, leaving that unit and their secondary as the biggest factors in their success or failure. However, the team finally has the talent to overcome their deficiencies elsewhere and they are the prime candidate to end New England’s run at the top of the division this season.

THE OTHER GUYS
Buffalo Bills 5:1

The Buffalo Bills are another trendy pick to overcome the Patriots next season and they have also added some key pieces to head in that direction.

The Bills are built on defense and already had one of the best units in the NFL last season on that side of the ball. Nearly all the pieces from last year’s fourth-ranked defense remain in place and new coach Rex Ryan should have plenty of fun deploying them. The move to retain breakout defensive end Jerry Hughes as he balked at other offers in free agency should have a legitimate impact. The 26-year-old Hughes and veteran Mario Williams will wreak havoc in Ryan’s system.

The Bills also have an offense that instantly improved with the addition of LeSean McCoy to lead their ground attack. McCoy remains one of the league’s best running backs and will give Buffalo a dimension it has lacked out of the backfield since the days of Thurman Thomas. The Bills are also in solid shape in the pass catching department with the additions of wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Charles Clay to a group that already includes a star in Sammy Watkins and an emerging second option in Robert Woods.

However, Buffalo will be held back by the franchise’s continued inability to find the right fit at quarterback. The Bills brought in Matt Cassel to compete with E.J. Manuel for the starting job, and though they could ride Ryan’s ground and pound style to the playoffs the way the Jets did under Mark Sanchez, the unsettled quarterback situation will make it more difficult for them to challenge for the AFC East title. That alone makes the 5:1 odds on Buffalo not worth wagering on.

TAKE THESE ODDS
New York Jets 12:1

The Bills are an especially risky bet when the New York Jets are sitting on the board with much steeper odds despite finding themselves in a similar situation.

Like Buffalo, New York’s situation this season is clouded by an uncertain future at the quarterback position with Geno Smith. But the rest of the squad in NY is as strong as any in the division.

The Jets had arguably the league’s most dominant defensive front already and added to the mix the best player in the draft, Leonard Williams. New York also strengthened one of their biggest weak spots last year by not only reuniting the dynamic duo of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, but also by adding Buster Skrine to play in the slot and Marcus Gilchrist to hold down the strong safety spot, pushing Calvin Pryor back over to his natural position of free safety. With strength up front and on the backend, new coach Todd Bowles’ defense could rise to the top of the league this season and carry the team.

But they won’t necessarily have to do all the heavy lifting. Though Smith leaves plenty to be desired at the quarterback position, New York has put more talent around him for this coming season than any Jets quarterback has had in recent memory. The addition of Brandon Marshall should make the offense better in more than just the obvious way. Marshall is not only a talented No. 1 target, his presence takes the focus off Eric Decker, who got lost at times last year against top corners. The team also drafted Devin Smith, giving Smith a multitude of options in the passing game. The Jets also strengthened their running back committee by adding Ridley and former Rams running backs Zac Stacy and Daryl Richardson added to Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. That quintet makes New York as deep as any team in the backfield, and their offensive line remains a strength that should allow that group to thrive.

It’s highly questionable whether the Jets can do enough to overcome their instability at quarterback and compete for the AFC East crown, but at such long odds and with a strong team around him for the first time since he arrived in the league, it’s a gamble worth taking.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys