There are no certainties in sports. Except this: The New England Patriots will win the AFC East this season.
It is not just that the Patriots have won their division nine years in a row and 14 of the last 15. It is not just that the Patriots again went to the Super Bowl, for the third time in four years. All dynasties do end.
It is that the rest of the East is just awful.
The Patriots were 13-3 last year, but the Buffalo Bills were not too far behind at 9-7, earning their first playoff berth of the century. Perhaps Buffalo can take another step forward to challenge the Pats?
Last season, with a record of 5-4, the Bills abruptly benched their starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, and turned to a rookie drafted in the fifth round, Nathan Peterman. The move was widely mocked, correctly as it turned out. Peterman threw five interceptions and was benched at halftime.
The Bills reverted to Taylor and sneaked into the playoffs. And this season? They traded Taylor to the Cleveland Browns and will start … Peterman. Oh boy.
Fans are hoping Peterman will live up to his strong performances in the preseason, not generally a bellwether of regular-season success. And Josh Allen, a rookie, seems far from ready to take over.
Could the Bills rely on the running game? Well, they have LeSean McCoy, who usually manages 1,000 yards a season, but is 30, and under investigation for possible involvement in the home invasion of his ex-girlfriend. His yards per carry sank to a career-low 4.0 last season.
The other two teams in the division were even worse last year: the Miami Dolphins at 6-10 and the New York Jets at 5-11. Few are looking for big improvement in 2018.
The Dolphins’ poor season came behind a lured-from-retirement Jay Cutler. Now Ryan Tannehill is back after missing a season with a knee injury. But Tannehill’s stock-in-trade is presiding semi-competently over .500-ish ball, and no one is looking for him to suddenly become Dan Marino.
As for the running game, Jay Ajayi was traded to the Eagles, and Miami will rely on Kenyan Drake, unproven as a No. 1 rusher, and 35-year-old Frank Gore.
Where to begin with the Jets? Their five wins last season included one each over the Dolphins and the Bills (both at home), one in overtime and one over the Browns (by 3 points). The team will turn to a rookie quarterback, 21-year-old Sam Darnold, probably the right move with 39-year-old Josh McCown the other alternative. The receiving and running back corps is hardly filled with Pro Bowlers.
A dive into the statistics does not find much hope. The Patriots had the league’s third-best offense, averaging 5.9 yards per play. Their East rivals were 21st, 23rd, and 27th. The Patriots scored 156 more points than any divisional rival and surrendered 63 fewer. They were 5-1 against the division, with an average margin of victory of 13 points.
That the Patriots are going to win the East is hardly a revelation. If you can get a bet down on them at all, you will have to put up $700 or $800 just to win $100. The next biggest favorite, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Central, are only 3-1 favorites.
Bookmakers are projecting the Patriots over/under for the season at 11 wins. Their three opponents are all at around 6. That is Browns territory.
The pain could start quickly. The Patriots are 6.5-point favorites in Week 1 against the Houston Texans, while the other three teams are underdogs. It seems probable that the Patriots will quickly take a divisional lead they will not relinquish.
Looking for a silver lining for the rest of the East? Someone has to finish second. And some wins will be available because each of the teams gets to play four games against the other two.
Maybe Tom Brady will get hurt or get old. Maybe Peterman’s preseason performances herald a great career. Maybe Tannehill will stay healthy. Maybe Darnold will be a superstar. Maybe there will be a race in the AFC East.
But probably not. No, make that definitely not.