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In 2017, much-maligned AFC East was maybe best division in conference

Alex Reimer
January 02, 2018 - 2:04 pm

One columnist in town enjoys referring to the AFC East as a “division of tomato cans.” It’s a sly way to downplay the Patriots’ regular season success, and effective, considering there’s historically been a kernel of truth to it. While Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have hoisted five Lombardi trophies since 2001, the rest of the division has cycled through dozens of head coaches and starting quarterbacks. It’s been nearly two decades of disarray. 

This season, the “tomato can” moniker appropriately encapsulates the AFC as a whole. The Patriots’ slate of possible Divisional Round opponents is downright putrid, with the Chiefs posing the only legitimate threat to pull off the upset. (And given the injuries to Kansas City’s defense, that does not seem likely.)

The entire AFC was weak in 2017, primarily due to the wretched state of quarterbacking across the conference. With Andrew Luck and short-lived rookie sensation Deshaun Watson out with injuries, and Joe Flacco and Philip Rivers regressing, there was a dearth of ability at the position. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the quarterback-starved AFC East was able to hold its own. 

With two playoff teams –– the Bills clinched their first postseason berth Sunday since 1999–– the AFC East was not a laughingstock. In fact, it may have been the best division in the conference this season. 

Including the Patriots, the AFC East was the only division in the conference to feature a winning record (33-31). Without the Patriots, the record drops to 20-28, which is better than the AFC North (16-32) and AFC South (17-31) when its first-place teams, the Steelers and Jaguars, are removed. It is identical to the AFC West without the Chiefs. The division took a hit this season due to the surprising struggles of the Broncos and Raiders.

Another way to measure the AFC East’s competency –– again, all of this praise is relative –– was Tom Brady’s performance against it. The Patriots won five of their six games against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets, but Brady was not great. He completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 1,389 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions in six games against his divisional foes. Brady lit up the rest of the conference, completing 70 percent of his throws for 1,902 yards with 13 touchdowns and one interception in six contests. 

It’s worth mentioning that all but one of the Patriots' inter-divisional games came over the final six weeks of the season, when Brady threw interceptions in five straight games for the first time since 2002. But maybe the Bills, Dolphins and Jets deserve some credit for mitigating Brady down the stretch. Surely, Miami put forth perhaps its best defense showing of the season in its Monday night matchup against the Pats. 

It looks like the Bills, Dolphins and Jets will enter next season with some stability as well. None of those three teams are expected to make any significant coaching changes. 

It’s always tempting to rag on the AFC East. But this year, save the vitriol for the rest of the conference. The tomato cans switched aisles. 

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