Defense should keep Pats atop AFC East

By Bruce Marshall  () 

The favorite: Patriots. It’s not as clear-cut in the East as it has been since early this century. Only once since 2003 has New England failed to win the division. We still back the Patriots, but with some provisos. No more Tom Brady, off to Tampa Bay to ride into the sunset of his career. Wasn’t it the season that Brady missed — 2008 — that the Pats last failed to win the East? That’s true, but Bill Belichick still squeezed 11 wins out of a team with Matt Cassel taking almost all the snaps. And Belichick has won games in recent years with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett taking snaps when Brady was out. Now it looks like Cam Newton will be the man behind center, but the Pats didn’t win the East again for an 11th straight season in 2019 because of the Brady-led offense. The defense ranked best in the league for most of last season and is still probably the most formidable platoon in the division even as Belichick deals with a handful of opt-outs for 2020. The rest of the East looks as if it is closing the gap, and Buffalo is a chic pick to usurp the Pats. But it’s worth noting that it has been a decade since any other East team has won a playoff game, which the Mark Sanchez-led Jets did in 2010. In the end, the edge New England holds over the East is the same as it has been since the Patriots won their first Super Bowl in the 2001 season. Belichick: Bet against him at your own risk.


Live dog: Jets. Since many believe Buffalo is ready to overhaul New England and win the East, we can’t really call the Bills underdogs. And since we’re not ready to back the Dolphins, that leaves us with the Jets. Why not? Quietly, coach Adam Gase saved a job that looked precarious at midseason by winning six of the last eight in 2019. Included were wins in the last two, amid rumors of internal stride, one of those effectively knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs. Will they have as much adversity to deal with this season, especially if they avoid another 0-4 start? In the offseason, Gase set about rebuilding his offensive line via free agency, adding versatile pieces to better protect QB Sam Darnold, who has been under siege most of his first two seasons. That should allow first-round pick Mekhi Becton, an OT from Louisville, to ease into the lineup. Second-round pick Denzel Mims, a WR from Baylor, could prove an exciting addition to Darnold’s group of targets, while ageless RB Frank Gore was enlisted in free agency to take some of the load off Le’Veon Bell. GM Joe Douglas also believes he has ample replacements for SS Jamal Adams, including Bradley McDougald, acquired from Seattle in the same deal that landed the Jets a trove of draft picks down the road. But the key to making a playoff run remains Darnold, now working in the second year of the Gase system with what seems an upgraded supporting cast. 


Player props: A slew of Patriots quarterback Cam Newton props are being offered, including some head-to-head props vs. other QBs, such as Teddy Bridgewater. The prop that intrigues us the most with Newton is his + 360 price to win Comeback Player of the Year. His main competition figures to come from Ben Roethlisberger, but we view this as a two-horse race, with Newton’s price worth a look. Meanwhile, amidst the Buffalo ballyhoo is a lot of support for second-year RB Devin Singletary to have a bust-out campaign, though we suspect many of the carries Frank Gore had last season will instead be going to rookie Zack Moss. The Buffalo offense might be leaning on QB Josh Allen’s aerial exploits a bit more in the fall. Singletary does not have the look of a back carrying the ball 20 times per game, and if he splits time with Moss as we believe, we’d take a hard look at Singletary Under 800.5 rushing yards, offered at a fair -106 price at DraftKings.


Big games on the board


Miami at New England, Week 1: As we don’t have a traditional preseason this summer, Sept. 13 will be the first chance we get to see Newton as Brady’s successor with the Patriots. If nothing else, this matchup provides an early barometer of what the Pats’ starting point will be post-Brady. Belichick certainly has this one circled vs. disciple Brian Flores, whose Dolphins kept the Patriots from a first-round playoff bye with a shocking win in Week 17 last December at Gillette Stadium.


New York Jets at Buffalo, Week 1: Another Week 1 game, but we think this one is key too. Remember last September, when these two met in the opener at MetLife and the Bills narrowly won 17-16? That result set the tone for both in the first half of the season, and consequences could be similarly high for this year’s opener. Besides, even Hoda Kotb and Al Roker can tell you Gase is well advised to get off to a fast start to avoid the Big Apple tabloids starting to beat the drums for another coaching change.


Kansas City at Buffalo, Week 6: This Thursday night special on Oct. 15 ought to provide a chance for the Bills to legitimize themselves as serious contenders in front of a national audience if they can make a fist against Patrick Mahomes and the Super Bowl champs. Or it could illustrate how far they are from serious contention. This could be a watershed game. 


New England at Los Angeles Rams, Week 14: Since the Patriots were scheduled to play the Chargers and the Rams on the road, the NFL decided to give Belichick a bit of a break and schedule the games back to back at the new SoFi Stadium in early December. The Rams battle is on a Thursday, creating the odd dynamic of the visiting team already being in town before the hosts get back the preceding Sunday night from a date vs. the Cardinals in Phoenix. That day, New England will play at SoFi vs. the Chargers.  By this point in the season we should have an idea whether the Newton experiment has worked for the Patriots, though it’s also possible we could see two teams that have fallen from the heights after meeting in Super Bowl LIII just 22 months earlier.  


New England (Over 8.5 -143, DraftKings) 


Some better prices are available on the Patriots at nine wins, but we’d risk laying just a bit more to get the 8.5 wins being offered at some sportsbooks. We’ve talked about QB Cam Newton, though already a bit of concern has arisen over the hip injury to QB Jarrett Stidham, Newton’s competition for the starting job. Early injury reports were positive, but the last thing New England needs is for Stidham to be hurting, given Newton’s considerable durability concerns. The Pats do have journeyman Brian Hoyer as insurance. 


If Newton is beyond his injury woes, he provides offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with a different sort of weapon than Tom Brady. Newton still should have the ability to make plays on the move that were a staple of his repertoire in his MVP days at Carolina. It’s the Belichick defense, however, that won the division for the Patriots last year, and the master tactician shouldn’t be underestimated.


Buffalo (Under 9 + 110, PointsBet)


We could join the stampede who think Buffalo is about to end New England’s reign in the AFC East and make a Super Bowl run, but we won’t. Some AFC insiders wonder about the lingering effects of blowing that sizable lead in the wild-card round at Houston last season. Yes, Sean McDermott has a championship-quality stop unit (with CB Tre White a possible defensive MVP), but the days of on-the-job learning for QB Josh Allen are over. He must  produce at a higher level. Even though the addition of WR Stefon Diggs from the Vikings adds a valuable piece to the arsenal, Allen remains a work in progress, with his deep-ball shortcomings a concern. 


The schedule is no picnic, either, with five games against teams from the last two Super Bowls, plus Seattle, Tennessee and Pittsburgh on the slate. Remember: Buffalo was also just 3-3 vs. the AFC East a year ago. Unless Allen makes the jump right now, the Bills might not crack .500. 


New York Jets (Over 6.5 -105, PointsBet)


It might surprise some that 6.5 wins would actually land beneath the Jets’ seven wins last season. Does New York look any worse? 


Consider the slow start last season when QB Sam Darnold missed almost a month due to mononucleosis. Adam Gase used emergency QB Luke Falk for three games, all losses, before Darnold returned to help the Jets to their first win vs. Dallas on Oct. 13. Gase and GM Joe Douglas believe they have patched enough of the holes on their offensive line  via free agency and the draft to keep Darnold upright and perhaps ignite an offense that scored 34 or more four times in the last half of 2019, when the Jets won six of eight down the stretch.


Crucial to getting to seven wins might be the pair of games against the Miami Dolphins sandwiched around the bye week in November. If Darnold continues progressing on the QB learning curve, there’s no reason Gase’s troops should regress from last year’s 7-9 record. 


Miami (Under 6.5 -134, DraftKings)


As is the case with the Patriots, a bit of shopping can uncover a 6.5-win price on the Dolphins. We suspect Miami will be hard-pressed to exceed last year’s win total of five, which might have created a bit of false optimism with a deceptively fast finish.


It was an impressive debut for first-year coach Brian Flores, who inherited an apparent tanking situation. The Dolphins hung in ]and cobbled together a collection of close successes after starting 0-7, including knocking the New England Patriots out of a first-round bye in Week 17. However, the margin of error was slim, and we’ve seen many other teams tease with belated fast finishes before flopping the next season.


The Mr. Hyde side of much-traveled QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was mostly suppressed last season, but history has proven it’s always just around the corner. And if Alabama rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa is forced into the lineup sooner than expected, it’s likely because the Dr. Jekyll side of Fitzpatrick has disappeared. The Dolphins seemed to make various upgrades in free agency, and the new RB tandem of Jordan Howard and Matt Breida could work out quite nicely. Still, Flores would be doing well to get five wins out of this year’s team before the Dolphins become a more serious threat with Tagovailoa at the controls down the road.


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