The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – AFC East

What a difference a lack of Tom Brady makes! For almost all of the last 20 years, the AFC East has been home to the Patriots and three other teams shuffling between various stages of floundering, with but a small handful of Wild Card berths to provide the occasional illusion of progress. Now that Brady has fled the division, it has become more wide-open than it’s been since Dan Marino was still playing. Yes, there is a clear front-runner heading into this season, but it’s not too hard to imagine three different teams winning the division crown. Hell, even the Jets have something approaching good vibes surrounding them! Therefore, the AFC East is the most interesting it’s been in decades, right?

Then why did I procrastinate on these write-ups for so long!? I had all weekend to get a good start on putting down a small handful of sentences worth keeping, at least, and now it’s Monday and I have nothing! Nada! Zilch! Diddly-squat! I spent all of the last four days realizing that all of a sudden, I had the mental energy for playing video games again, so guess what I spent those days doing when I could wrangle some spare time? That whole time could have been used towards doing something productive, but in my infinite wisdom I figured that I do my best work when I’m under a severe time crunch (a half-truth, at best), so I could wait until Monday to get to it.

So you can imagine the sonic boom of frantic horror that rippled through my psyche late last night, as I got in bed for the first of my night naps – you don’t go to sleep with a newborn, you power down for a series of night naps – and remembered that I couldn’t just crank out my morning dump and get to work, because we had to take the baby in for a 9:30 appointment with the vet! Shit, I mean the pediatrician; it’s like going to the vet, but for humans! Now I finally have a bare minimum of time to scratch out a few paragraphs of who-gives-a-fuck prologue as a means of putting off writing up four teams I maybe, sort of just barely have a handle on. Crap dang it!

Anyway, all this is to say I’m not convinced this division is terribly interesting, even though it’s a more open competition than we’re used to in the wake of the Patriots. Note, however, that “more interesting than we’re used to” is an entirely relative claim. Were you to unfold the infinite and examine the final season standings across all possible universes (which, if you have the means to see past the fragile veil that separates this bullshit reality from the endless multitude of multiverses, is honestly is kind of a weird and possibly wasteful way to use that opportunity, but I once went to college and decided to major in philosophy, thus spending four years and tens of thousands of dollars un-learning things instead of learning them so no judgment), the Bills would win the division like, at least a good 70% of the time, the Dolphins 15% of the time, the Patriots 10% of the time (or maybe the Dolphins and Patriots are flipped around, fuck if I know), and the last 5% of the time the season does not actually conclude due to some combination of ecological, socio-economic, and/or geopolitical disasters. Still beats two decades of the Patriots iron fisting their opposition, I guess.

Behold, an excellent and clever transitional phrase!

Buffalo Bills

If you read the preceding portions of this guide, you’ve doubtless noticed that, for all of my huffing and puffing about how football is a complicated sport where no single factor is sufficient to explain a team’s success or failure, and thus requires holistic analysis, every single team write-up has centered on each team’s quarterback, and whether or not that quarterback is any good. If that quarterback is any good, I am likely to regard that team’s chances this year highly, even if I maybe shouldn’t (see: the Falcons). If a team’s quarterback sucks (or probably sucks), I am likely to write off said team, even if the rest of the team is actually pretty good (see: the Colts, the Saints). If I have no idea if a team’s quarterback is good or bad, I fuck around on the internet for a few hours, and then type out a few vague mutterings and name a small handful of other guys I know to be on the team in lieu of making a valid or interesting point (see: I’ll never tell, tee hee!).

But really, this is only a problem relative to my lofty aspirations of serious, steak-brained football analysis. I am obviously too lazy and too uneducated and too demolished by the stop/start futility of night naps to come anywhere near fulfilling such ambitions. Not only is the quarterback the most important player on each team, it’s the easiest position to keep straight. That’s crucial for me, as I’m cobbling my thoughts for this series together at the last minute on what might as well be a stack of cocktail napkins.

And, for the present purpose, I’m not sure if there’s any other team in the league with more riding on their quarterback’s performance than the Bills. Hot off the heels of last year, in which Josh Allen made a wholly improbable transformation into one of the better QBs in the league, leading the rest of his loaded team to the AFC Championship Game (and then losing by multiple scores, but it’s like that sometimes), the onus is now upon Allen to prove that no seriously, he’s actually capable of throwing the ball where he wants it to go despite demonstrably not having this capability at any point before then. Allen has also been rewarded with a fat new contract, thus upping the ante further. It’s not too late for his Bills tenure to end as a cautionary tale; even in this era of prolific passing, 37 TD seasons still don’t grow on trees. For that matter, neither do 13-3 seasons, especially since those aren’t mathematically possible anymore.

Perhaps you can see where I’m headed with this. Even with Allen’s improvement, a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, and the good fortune to have Brian Daboll return as offensive coordinator (I thought he was a shoe-in for a head coaching job), it’s Super Bowl or Bust in Buffalo. But last year was a rare season, and there’s no guarantee that it can be repeated, let alone improved upon. Maybe Allen regresses a bit (or more), maybe the defense kind of stinks, maybe some key players get injured, maybe Sean McDermott chooses the exact wrong time to get conservative and punt at midfield, maybe it becomes a real problem that they can’t run the ball for shit; I could go on. This remains the most complete team in the division, but given the expectations involved, I’m nervous they can keep up with a suddenly stacked AFC if they slip up even the tiniest bit.

Max Points: 16

The Bills are still legit contenders going into the season, though, and they have a surprisingly soft schedule for a first place team. With the possible exceptions of a Week 5 trip to Arrowhead and a Week 14 trip to Tampa, every single game they have is quite winnable, and several are laughably lopsided. Playing both the AFC South and NFC South is a tremendous boon, as is drawing Pittsburgh because of the whole first place thing. As always, be careful with the non-Jets divisional contests but don’t be afraid to go max with the Bills otherwise.

Predicted Finish: 1st

Miami Dolphins

If, at some point during last season, you found yourself thinking that maybe Tua doesn’t have it, and perhaps the Dolphins would be best served using their extra high first-round pick, courtesy of the Texans, to either pick a new quarterback or trade for an established one, this bit of free advice is for you:

Fucking go outside! Get up from your couch, or your laptop, or your desktop, or wherever it is you happen to be when you find yourself infected with brain parasites, and step outside into the sunshine and experience this whole ‘Vitamin D’ business your physician keeps harping on. Or if it’s raining, let it splash on your face, as a painful (or at least wet) reminder of what it is to be alive. No shit Tua didn’t look all that good last season! He was a rookie playing behind a shitty offensive line with a not terribly great stable of weapons, did so without the benefit of an actual offseason program, and was coming off of a devastating hip injury that not 30 years prior ended the football career of one Vincent Edward “Bo” Jackson, one of the very most gifted athletes to ever grace this earth, let alone a football field. Maybe that’s a long time in the sports medicine world, but in reality it’s very much still in living memory.

And again, dude is a fucking rookie! If I may be allowed to be an old man yelling at a cloud for just a moment, I remember a time when the entire football observing public had the good sense to know that rookie quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be all that good. Now the landscape is choked with motherfuckers expecting immediate success from every first round pick at the position, in part due to the lack of patience that plagues all sports these days and in part because of the small handful of rookie QBs who have had decent years making every Madden-brained armchair coach/GM out there wonder why they can’t all be ready to go in their first year, despite decades of evidence to suggest that’s the wrong question. It gets me so het up, I gotta take time out of my busy schedule to hurl wild accusations at unspecified strawmen and other possibly fictional entities.

Ahem. I apologize for these outbursts. Give Tua a chance, is my point. Maybe he’ll be OK enough to be effective; the Dolphins’ defense is well-coached and potentially monstrous, so perhaps all he needs to do is manage games for now. Heck, maybe he’ll take a big leap in Year 2! And yeah, maybe he’ll fucking suck, but we were never going to know that with anything approaching certainty after limited action under deeply compromised circumstances.

All of that said, this is where I once again let my pre-existing cognitive bias flags fly freely for all to see, and mention that I always look at every team that had a real shot at making the playoffs before collapsing down the stretch with all kinds of side-eye. On the one hand, I should probably be impressed that their rebuild is maybe kind of ahead of schedule, but on the other hand, there are no guarantees in football, meaning there’s no guarantee that there is even so much as a next step for the Dolphins to take. They might collapse like a souffle this year! I don’t think they’re gonna, but I would feel a hell of a lot better about them going into this year had they snagged a Wild Card last year. That might not be fair, but football isn’t fair so I’m cool with it.

Max Points: 9

I was really concerned about the Dolphins’ prospects before they opened up the checkbook for Xavien Howard; superior defensive performance remains their best chance for immediate success. Now that Howard is paid, I am satisfied. This group is well coached enough to make life really difficult for the lesser quarterbacks they face, and they face a good smattering of them. If their offense does well, too, they will become worth more points quickly.

Predicted Finish: 3rd (Wild Card)

New England Patriots

I should probably be happy that the Patriots’ dynasty may very well be nearing its end, but when I think about their current station, I mostly get bummed out. Tom Brady still strutting around like he owns the place. I like Cam Newton and want him to succeed – I feel especially bad about that strip sack in the Super Bowl, which seems to have defined his legacy but for real, you try and think straight and after taking that kind of a beating – but last year showed that no really, his injury history has left him a shadow of his former self (and getting COVID early in the season didn’t him any favors, either). And it’s become clear that the Patriots, by virtue of their reputation, are going to be considered more relevant than they actually are for years and years to come, thus dooming the rest of us to a few extra years of nationally televised games in those hideously ugly home uniforms.

I’ve long considered it likely that the Patriots would bounce back this year, largely due to the massive amount of COVID opt-outs they had last year (especially on defense), but also by virtue of their reputation. I still have a healthy and robust fear of Bill Belichick, even though last season seemed to suggest that even the best coach in the league can only do so much with a talent-depleted roster and an unstable quarterback situation. And while the opt-outs are all returning and the defense has even added Matthew Judon in free agency, the offense looks to be a shambles.

Cam is back on a one-year deal, but it doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to be all that good at throwing passes ever again. With the drafting of new quarterback Mac Jones in the first round, Cam is also likely to get benched after a certain amount of struggling. I have no idea what to expect from Jones, but since the mere mention of his name inevitably resulted in wailing and gnashing of teeth among 49ers fans on r/NFL, and since he’s a rookie, I’m not expecting much. Perhaps he will be good, and perhaps not; it saddens me to know that spineless fuckboy Josh McDaniels will almost certainly put him in an actual position to succeed, regardless of his skill level.

I would be remiss in my duties if I did not also mention the Patriots’ extremely rare free agency spending spree. In addition to bringing in Judon (and bringing back Kyle Van Noy from a stop-off in Miami) on defense, the Patriots snagged both Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, two of the top two tight ends in this free agent class, as well as wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and uh…Nelson Aghalor, who maybe is good now? Spending large chunks of money – not to mention cap space – on big ticket free agents is decidedly un-Patriots, but when your skill position drafting has been this horrendous for the better part of a decade, what else can you do? Also, I am not here to speak on the wisdom of handing out these kind of contracts; that’s a problem for later seasons. For this season, this massive talent infusion is almost certainly a boon. It’s probably not a large enough boon to overcome the Bills, but a Wild Card should be more than doable.

Max Points: 12

Concerns about the offense are preventing me from going slightly higher, but some of the games on this schedule can only end in tears for the Patriots’ opponents. In particular, they play Houston, Carolina, and the Chargers; even though all three of these are on the road, I expect nothing less than total evisceration. Also, there’s no such thing as a road game against the Chargers, what am I saying?

Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card)

New York Jets

I like Robert Saleh. He seems like a cool guy! If nothing else, he was fun to watch on the sidelines when he was with the 49ers; intense but level-headed when observing plays in that weird little half-crouch football coaches seem so fond of, bright-eyed and all smiles when his defense was doing well. It requires no imagination to see how he’s good at getting players to charge through a brick wall that is also covered in rusty machetes. I’m glad he’s getting a chance to be a head coach. However, I am saddened to know that this chance has rendered him helpless, bound to the masthead of the damned Stygian barge that is the Jets. I don’t have much else to say about this team, because they’re the Jets, and were I to have any more opinions, I would have to do research on the Jets, which in turn requires that I contemplate the Jets. That sounds fucking terrible, and I cannot be bothered.

To the extent that I have any knowledge of the Jets, I know two things. The first is that they used their second overall pick on a quarterback named Zach Wilson. Since he’s a rookie quarterback and he plays for the Jets, I am presuming he will suck until his non-sucking is demonstrated to my satisfaction. The second is less of a fact and more of an inference. There are two types of rebuilding teams. There are teams that, while bad, were actually kind of stacked in places, and therefore in a good position to right the ship quickly. Then, there are the teams that were just bad, and who have a long way to go before even modest success can be expected of them. I have it on good authority from several sources that the Jets are very much in the latter camp, which is good enough for me, especially since it has effectively deterred me from looking into the team myself.

Max Points: 3

I’m going this high solely out of respect for Saleh, who seems like exactly the sort of coach who can will an untalented team to a small handful of wins, as Brian Flores did with the Dolphins a couple years ago. And if that proves overly optimistic, I’m only out 3 points.

Predicted Finish: 4th

AFC South / NFC South / NFC East / AFC West / NFC West / AFC North / NFC North

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