The AFC East race is historically deep and could go down to the wire

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The ongoing AFC East playoff race is unique. This quartet of teams has never been so competitive from top to bottom.

The division's shaken out predictably since 2002, when the NFL realigned into its current form and Tom Brady became New England's undisputed starter. Brady quarterbacked the Patriots to the division title in every season but one that he was healthy. The Bills emerged as the big dog as soon as he split with coach Bill Belichick, and the Jets' and Dolphins' long playoff droughts endure.

But times have changed: Mike McDaniel's Dolphins have kept pace with the Bills for three months, and the Jets look rejuvenated under Robert Saleh. The Patriots are at .500 despite losing to Buffalo on Thursday night. Three wins separate the first and worst teams as December dawns.

Great defenses abound in this neck of the league. Josh Allen raises Buffalo's ceiling, but Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, and Jordan Poyer have helped the Bills' star-studded defense weather a rash of injuries. Uneven quarterbacking hasn't sunk New York or New England because neither team gives up many points. Miami is the outlier: Tua Tagovailoa's breakout, in conjunction with the arrival of Tyreek Hill, is what makes the Dolphins fearsome.

This is shaping up to be the first season in the 32-team era to produce three AFC East playoff clubs. The addition of a seventh berth in each conference means all four squads have a shot to qualify. The division could sweep the AFC wild-card spots if the 7-4 Bengals and 6-5 Chargers both falter.

The stretch run should be riveting. By opponent win percentage, the AFC East teams and Cincinnati have five of the 11 toughest remaining schedules, according to Tankathon. New England and Buffalo face the Bengals in back-to-back weeks and segue straight into big divisional showdowns.

Tight races are few and far between this year. The division champ is all but decided in the AFC South (Titans), AFC West (Chiefs), and NFC North (Vikings). Brady's Buccaneers are 5-6 yet lead the listless NFC South. Only the NFC East is comparably exciting: All four teams there are in line to reach the postseason.

Unlike the Giants and Commanders in the NFC East, every AFC East team ranks top 10 league-wide in point differential, per Pro Football Reference. The whole division has what it takes to win a playoff game. That was never the case when the Patriots reigned.

Consider these AFC East facts:

  • In 12 of the past 20 seasons, the division champ finished with at least three more wins than the runner-up.

  • In 14 seasons, the champ finished with at least five more wins than the third-place team.

  • In 17 seasons, the champ won at least six more games than the bottom-feeder.

  • The 2007 season was egregiously imbalanced. The 16-0 Patriots finished nine wins above Buffalo, 12 above New York, and 15 above Miami, and they won their six divisional matchups by 25.5 points per game.

  • As recently as 2020, right after Brady left for Tampa Bay, the standings looked like this:

New England's made strides since then and the Jets have risen from the gutter. That every team is good now is a novelty. The division had three teams at .500 or better in only seven of the past 20 seasons, and all four accomplished it only once.

Certain past playoff races were somewhat dramatic. In 2005 and 2009, New England settled for 10 wins and fended off one challenger by a single game. In 2006, 2015, and 2019, the 12-win Patriots outdueled a 10-win opponent while the teams in third and fourth place fell far behind.

Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in 2015. Joe Robbins / Getty Images

Three seasons came closest to resembling this one. In 2002, 2008, and 2021, three rivals jostled for the division crown deep into December.

2002: NYJ 9-7, NE 9-7, MIA 9-7, BUF 8-8

The Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to Buffalo ahead of this season, then slumped following their first Super Bowl triumph. New York started 2-5, inspiring Herm Edwards' vigorous "You play to win the game!" lecture, but rallied to win the division with Chad Pennington at quarterback. New England topped Miami in overtime in the season finale, but the Jets blew out Green Bay that afternoon and benefited from their superior record in common games, one-upping Brady for the first and last time.

2008: MIA 11-5, NE 11-5, NYJ 9-7, BUF 7-9

Brady tore up his knee in Week 1, Matt Cassel drew in at QB, and New England joined the 1985 Broncos as 11-5 teams that missed the playoffs. Miami ended the year on a five-win heater and edged the Patriots on the conference-record tiebreaker. Every Pats defeat came within the AFC, including when Miami's use of the wildcat offense powered a 38-13 smackdown. The Dolphins scored four touchdowns on direct snaps to Ronnie Brown, utterly confounding Belichick's defense.

2021: BUF 11-6, NE 10-7, MIA 9-8, NYJ 4-13

The Pats beat Buffalo in Week 13 to open a two-game division lead, then squandered it with losses to the Bills and Dolphins. Miami's 8-1 end to the season created drama - remarkably, the franchise is .800 in its past 20 games - but the Bills closed with four straight victories to eclipse everyone. Ultimately, New England's defense caved in the wild-card round: Allen authored a touchdown drive every time he touched the ball in Buffalo's 47-17 win.

How did this year's logjam materialize? Allen made costly turnovers in the three-point losses to the Jets and Vikings that prevented the Bills from pulling away from the pack. Feasting on weak competition, the Dolphins beat the Steelers, Lions, Bears, Browns, and Texans in the last six weeks to improve to 8-1 when Tagovailoa plays.

Highly efficient and productive in his third season, Tagovailoa leads all quarterbacks in expected points added per play, per Ben Baldwin's database, and he hasn't been intercepted since September. Hill and Jaylen Waddle form the NFL's most electric receiver tandem; cumulatively, they put up 200 yards per game for Miami. If needed, could they carry the Dolphins to victory in a playoff shootout?

Jaylen Waddle (left) and Tua Tagovailoa. Megan Briggs / Getty Images
Josh Allen directs traffic against Sauce Gardner (1) and the Jets. Mike Stobe / Getty Images

Like New England's Jack Jones, Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner has excelled in coverage as a rookie, but New York fields the lesser young QB. Saleh benched Zach Wilson for a "dogshit" offensive showing at New England that featured more Jets punts than completions. Wilson's 48.8 PFF grade is last among qualified passers, so more starts should go to the serviceable Mike White, who sparkled in his season debut against the Bears last weekend.

Von Miller's absence with a knee injury will test the Bills' defense. Same goes for the quarterback gauntlet that the Patriots face to end the year: They'll go up against Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa, and Allen in Weeks 16-18. The season finale could wind up determining whether Buffalo hosts a playoff game and if New England sneaks in.

Allen threw for two scores in the Bills' 24-10 win Thursday, while the Patriots failed to convert nine third downs. New England's conservatism in the passing game annoyed Mac Jones; it doesn't take a lip reader to determine what he yelled on the sideline. The Pats have potential, but they'll have to bounce back to keep pace in the race.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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