Why the AFC East is the most competitive division in the NFL

When the New York Jets beat the Buffalo Bills last Thursday, the AFC East became the first division in the NFL to have all four of its teams reach the four-win plateau this year. In Week 9, that meant every team was at least close to .500. The Jets are 4-5, but only 2.5 games behind the New England Patriots for the division lead.

The Patriots, Jets, Bills and Miami Dolphins all have their warts. But the fact is there are a lot of terrible teams in the NFL this year and none of them play in this division. The AFC East is top-to-bottom the best division in the league halfway through the season.

I’d say the only division that comes close is the NFC South, where the New Orleans Saints have won six straight to shoot up to 6-2 and the Carolina Panthers are at their heels at 6-3. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Gang Green’s next opponent, have derailed already and the 4-4 Atlanta Falcons are a shadow of what they were a year ago. The NFC West is disqualified for having the 49ers and the AFC West is certainly no longer shaping up to have three 10-win teams.

But seriously. The AFC East!

The Patriots’ defense has been abhorrent for basically the entire season, but Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have unsurprisingly led them to 6-2, with their only losses coming to Kansas City and Carolina. The Bills, despite losing to the Jets this weekend, seem to have things figured out on both sides of the ball and just acquired new weapon Kelvin Benjamin at the trade deadline. Their being 5-3, after they looked like they were trying to tank worse (or better) than the Jets at the start of September, is the biggest testament to the surprising strength of this division. Buffalo and New England don’t meet until December, unfortunately.

Miami is a different piece of the puzzle. They have one of the worst point differentials in the league (-63) and one of the worst “Defense-adjusted Value Over Average” ratings according to Football Outsiders (31st).¬†They offloaded starting running back Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline and the starting quarterbacks have been Jay Cutler and, briefly, Matt Moore.

But if I can play the role of a Dolphins apologist for a minute, the majority of that point differential is due to one 40-0 shellacking against Baltimore in a Thursday night game, a weeknight famous for crappy football. Their offense sputtered from the season’s start, but they found ways to beat the Titans, Falcons and Jets in close affairs. Sure, they won’t stack up against New England when they play later this year. But other teams besides Miami wouldn’t have found ways to pull out close wins in games they probably should have lost. It’s a sign the Dolphins have some element the Colts or Bengals, for example, don’t quite have right now.

Then we have the Jets. They’re still in the division’s cellar, half a game behind Miami. The cellar never looked this good, especially since¬†they’ve surpassed all preseason expectations. The other teams in fourth place in their divisions are the Browns, Colts, Chargers and Broncos (tied), Giants, Bears, Buccaneers and 49ers, after all.

New York is 2-3 in division games and has just one left to play, at New England in Week 17. Fans should be happy to see the team beat Buffalo and Miami at home, but perhaps a better sign of the Jets’ capability was how they took an early 14-0 lead against the Patriots and played them tight in a losing effort.

I should note that advanced metrics don’t necessarily back up my claim. No AFC East team is in the top 12 this week in overall DVOA; New England is 13th, Buffalo is 17th, and the Jets clock in at 24th.

But opponents shouldn’t sleep on any of these teams, not even the Jets or Dolphins. You won’t find a Cleveland in the group. You won’t find a tanker, either. Just good football, as surprising as it’s been.

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