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Can Anyone In The AFC East Challenge The Patriots (For Once)?

To go with our 2016 NFL predictions, FiveThirtyEight is previewing each division.

Last season was a strange one for the NFL: Two historically mediocre teams — the Cardinals and the Panthers — had their best seasons ever, hitting new franchise high Elo ratings in the process.1 It was a season of surprises, though as usual, none of those surprises came in the AFC East. Based on our Elo-based projections for the NFL season that starts this week, we expect this trend to continue.

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New England Patriots

No feat in today’s NFL is more impressive and less exciting than New England’s continued dominance of the AFC East. The Patriots have won the division 12 of the past 13 seasons, never dropping below 10 wins during that span. In each of the past four seasons, they’ve won 12 games. The NFL is a small-sample league where the inconsistency of teams year to year is treated as a feature, not a bug (parity!), so you can forgive football fans for finding the AFC East a little, well, boring.

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Of course, the recent tedium of the division isn’t all on the Pats. Over the past seven seasons, the Dolphins have accomplished a feat no less perplexing: never winning less than six games or more than eight. Over that same span, the Bills went 6-10 four times. So it isn’t just that New England has been so consistently good — most of the teams in the division have been consistently mediocre. But it wasn’t always like this!

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From 2004 to 2008, this division was downright exciting. Sure, the Patriots still took the top spot in four out those five seasons, but at least their rivals weren’t so predictable. The Dolphins went from being bad (2004), to fine (2005), to the worst in the NFL (2007), to a shocking playoff entry (2008). The Jets were similarly swingy, making the playoffs at 10-6 in both 2004 and 2006 and going just 4-12 in both 2005 and 2007.

Will the Patriots finally stumble in 2016? They’ll be without Tom Brady for their first four games. Our Elo ratings don’t “know” about this suspension, but earlier this year, we estimated that losing Brady for four games wouldn’t cost the Patriots much, and even with a backup under center, they’ll likely be favorites at home against Miami, Houston and Buffalo in Weeks 2 through 4. We project the Patriots, Brady-loss excluded, to win 9.8 games.

Buffalo Bills

Managing an NBA team takes impeccable timing. Players peak and decline, and to be a championship contender means taking advantage of the narrow window when your core roster peaks in harmony. This juggling act is arguably twice as hard in football. The best seasons only come when the offense and defense — two rosters with virtually no overlapping personnel — hit their stride simultaneously.

The 2014 Buffalo Bills’ defense was one of the NFL’s best, by both traditional and advanced metrics. Unfortunately, the offense was blah and the team went 9-7. The 2015 offense, led by breakout QB Tyrod Taylor, defied expectations and ended above average, improving by a few points per game. But the defense was mediocre, getting about 4 points per game worse. The team finished 8-8. Frustrating!

To improve synergy, the Bills have reunited the Ryan brothers, with Rex continuing as head coach and Rob joining to lead the defense. Rob Ryan was an NFL defensive coordinator for the previous 12 seasons, and one of his teams (the 2013 Saints) allowed the fourth-fewest points in the NFL that year. His other 11 teams finished 13th, 16th, 18th, 21st, 24th, 24th, 25th, 26th, 28th, 31st and 32nd. That’s not great. We project the 2016 Bills to win 8.1 games.

New York Jets

Despite Jets-ing its way out of a playoff spot, New York had a solid 2015 season, finishing with 10 wins and the eighth-best point differential in the league. New QB Ryan Fitzpatrick had the best season of his career, thanks in large part to the addition of standout WR Brandon Marshall, who had 1,502 yards receiving (6 yards short of a career high) and 14 touchdowns. Ryan Fitzpatrick was 33 years old, and Marshall was 31. The Jets will employ their “maybe this older skill player just needs a change of scenery” strategy again in 2016, having signed former Chicago running back Matt Forte, who is 30 years old. If all three peak, anything could happen!

They probably won’t, though — Fitzpatrick in particular is a major regression candidate. He gets a lot of help from Marshall and fellow receiver Eric Decker, but generally speaking, 33-year-old QBs don’t just suddenly figure it out. And our Elo ratings were not particularly kind to the 2015 Jets, who saw a lot of their wins come against pretty mediocre opponents. Based on these ratings, we project them to win 7.9 games.

Miami Dolphins

As we’ve written before, our Elo rating system has pretty simple inputs Among other things, it doesn’t take into account if players changed teams during the offseason, or got injured, or were suspended. Sometimes — as the 2015 Dolphins proved — it doesn’t hurt to know less.

During the 2015 offseason, the Dolphins “made a splash”2 by adding defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, tight end Jordan Cameron and wide receiver Kenny Stills to their roster, bolstering a young squad that seemed on the verge of breaking out. Vegas put Miami’s wins over/under at 8.5, and when it looked like Tom Brady might be suspended for the first four games of the season, the hype train began: The Dolphins suddenly became a hot pick to win the AFC East. Our Elo predictions, knowing none of this, projected the team to win just 7.5 games. They won six.

Things don’t look much better for 2016. Ryan Tannehill, leader of an offense that averaged just 16 points a game from Week 8 onward, is entering his fifth NFL season and officially doesn’t count as a prospect anymore. The Dolphins still have to play the Patriots twice. We project them to win 6.4 games. Maybe they’ll surprise us.


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Footnotes

  1. If you haven’t encountered them on our site before, Elo ratings are a measure of overall team strength that update after each game. The Cincinnati Bengals also set a new Elo high thanks to their 8-0 start and had their best season ever by point differential. Unfortunately (but predictably), they lost in the first round of the playoffs.

  2. More or less every Dolphins signing is described this way at some point.

Reuben Fischer-Baum is a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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