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Patriots have gap control in AFC East

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 27, 2010 01:22 PM

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The other teams in the AFC East were probably hoping that Tom Brady would be marooned in Rochester, N.Y. permanently. It might be the only shot the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills have at dethroning the Patriots as divisional dons.

The quarterback gap in the AFC East is still as wide as the education achievement gap in this country. That's obvious after watching the fate of the four teams yesterday.

The Patriots are the only ones with quarterbacking royalty, and they were the only ones who scored a victory. They used their seventh straight win to clinch their eighth AFC East crown in 10 seasons with a 34-3 victory over Buffalo. Meanwhile, the three AFC East have-nots lost games that their quarterbacks literally threw away.

Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick treated the ball like a high school graduate treats his mortar board following graduation, committing five turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles),

Jets savior (Off the) Mark Sanchez, playing through a bad shoulder, had a chance to drive his team for the winning points and...threw a game-sealing interception against the Chicago Bears as his team backed into the playoffs -- again.

Miami's Chad Henne, who was benched earlier this season, might soon be taking his talents out of South Beach. Bad Chad threw a pair of interceptions on back-to-back drives in the final 3:48 of the fourth quarter, the second returned for the game-winning score as the Dolphins lost, 34-27, at home to the Lions.

It reinforced the fact that the division will remain the eminent and imminent domain of the Patriots until one of the following happens: a) Brady stops breathing b) He retires to his Southern California manse with his model wife c) One of the other teams in the division finds a reasonable facsimile of New England's nonpareil passer.

It's just this simple: Have quarterback, will travel.

The only two instances in the last decade the Patriots didn't win the division involved unusual circumstances for TB12. The first came in 2002, Brady's first full season as a starter. For all of Brady's 2001 heroics, there was a learning curve to going from Cinderella signal-caller to franchise cornerstone QB.

The other season in which the Patriots went hat-and-T-shirt-less was 2008, when Brady was sidelined with a torn ligaments in his left knee in the first game of the season.

You knew Brady was going to be better this season than he was last season, which despite all the hand-wringing was not a terrible year. Brady had played 15 snaps of meaningful football in just more than 19 months between Super Bowl XLII and the season-opener last year against Buffalo. Plus, he was hampered by significant finger and rib injuries last season.

The quarterback divide in the division was never clearer than watching Brady, the ostensible MVP, face off with Fitzpatrick, who is trying to prove that he is the quarterback of the future in western New York.

While Brady was an efficient 15 of 27 for 140 yards and three touchdowns, extending his league-leading touchdown toss total to 34, Fitzpatrick accounted for five of the Bills' seven crippling turnovers.

The Harvard-educated Fitzpatrick is a bright guy. He can probably explain in Latin what happened on each of his miscues. That's a lot of mea culpas for Mr. Fitzpatrick, who was not surprisingly apt in describing his play.

"I killed the team today by turning the ball over," said Fitzpatrick. "You can’t do that on any day. When you play a team that is that good and that efficient on offense it hurts you that much more. ...You just can’t have them, and I really hurt our football team today."

That's something Brady rarely does. The only case this season was the loss to the Jets in Week 2. And everyone around here blames a certain receiver for that. Some of the discussion and conjecture about TB12 losing his touch that followed that game seems pretty silly right now when you compare Brady to his divisional counterparts.

The combined six interceptions thrown by Fitzpatrick, Henne and Sanchez yesterday are more than Brady (four) has all season. Yesterday, Brady established a new NFL record with 319 passes (and counting) without an interception. He also added to his own obscure NFL record of consecutive games with two or more touchdown passes and no interceptions, bumping it up to eight.

To put Brady's interception-free streak in perspective: His last interception -- a Hail Mary pickoff Ravens at the end of regulation by the Ravens -- came on Oct. 17. Brady is going to go through Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's without an interception.

The other three QBs combined have thrown 46 picks this season. That's more than Brady has in the last five seasons combined. Since Oct. 17, Sanchez has thrown 13 interceptions, tossing one in nine of 10 games.

The division really isn't even a fair fight with Brady under center for the Patriots. It's like trying to defeat a samurai sword with a dull butter knife for the other teams, and it's going to remain that way.

At age 33, Brady is obviously still well within his prime, which for a quarterback these days can extend to 37 or 38 years old (see Elway, John). Brady will be 37 when his new extension expires.

Enjoy it while you can, Patriots fans. History says that once Brady is gone so is the Patriots' divine right to the division.

The Bills are still trying to find a successor to Jim Kelly. It's now abundantly clear to the folks in South Florida that Henne is the latest in a long line of quarterbacks that have failed to take the mantle from Dan Marino. Three decades later, the Jets are still looking for the next Joe Namath.

Eventually the QB balance of power in the division will shift away from the Patriots. But for now, the QB gap is a wide open as one of Brady's receivers.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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