2021 AFC East Preview

September 6, 2021

FILE - In this Jan. 24, 2021, file photo, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs stands on the field after their 38-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship NFL football game in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

For the overall 2021 NFL Preview click here, and see the links below for the rest of the divisional previews.

AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West

NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

Overview | Playoffs | Awards

Bills 12-5

Good news, bad news for Buffalo: The good news is, the team’s breakthrough 2020 season has made it relevant for the first time in decades.

The bad news is the Bills aren’t taking anyone by surprise in 2021. For the first time in a generation, Buffalo is saddled with huge expectations.

No one will feel that pressure more than Josh Allen, whose breakout 2020 season earned him MVP attention and led the Bills to their best playoff run since the glory years in the 1990s. Allen and former Terp Stefon Diggs might be the most prolific QB-WR tandem in the league, and adding the aging-yet-still effective Emmanuel Sanders to a deep receiving corps should allow Allen to build on that career year. My only concern with the offense is whether the run game can take some of the heat off Allen and the passing attack.

Improving the run game was one of Buffalo’s two biggest offseason needs. The other was upgrading the pass rush on defense, which the Bills addressed with their first two draft picks — Greg Rousseau in Round 1 and Boogie Basham in Round 2. If they pay immediate dividends, the defense should be a top-10 unit, maybe even top 5.

The Bills are in a loaded and unforgiving AFC. If Allen demonstrates his 2020 season wasn’t a fluke, the run game supports him and the defense ranks among the elite, Buffalo will be the team to beat in the conference.

Patriots 11-6

Given their dynastic 20-year run, the bar is impossibly high for the Patriots. So it’s no surprise New England took a “sky is falling” approach to overcoming its first playoff-less season in 12 years.

Surely, Washington fans found the Pats’ offseason eerily reminiscent of the early Dan Snyder era in the 2000s, when cutting big checks on Day 1 of free agency was the norm. This year, New England spent more than $137 million in guaranteed money in the first week of free agency, and the total tab of $159.6 million set an NFL record for one offseason. That is damn near what Robert Kraft paid to purchase the whole franchise in 1994. Never before has a team acted so desperate following a 7-9 season.

Which is why it’s curious that Bill Belichick is willing to bet this season on rookie Mac Jones, who looked good in the preseason — against backups. Cam Newton took all the first-team reps until getting sidelined by COVID protocols, and now he’s out of a job. Jones will play behind an offensive line that figures to be one of the league’s best. Shiny new targets such as tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, along with receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, will make Jones a legit Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate if he’s as good as they think he is. Bank on him throwing more than Cam’s eight touchdowns in 2020.

COVID opt-outs made this defense the hardest-hit unit in the league last year, and the return of Dont’a Hightower will be a huge relief. Fellow linebacker Kyle Van Noy is back for a second tour of duty in Foxborough, and free agent signees Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux and Matt Judon should bring the Pats D closer to the top 10 than the middle of the pack, like they were in 2020.

Ultimately, though, New England has one of the worst rest differentials in the league and Buffalo looks way too good to stumble out of the division penthouse. The Patriots are more likely to be a wild card playoff team — a really, really dangerous wild card.

Dolphins 6-11

I wanted more for Miami; I really did.

But upon reviewing the Dolphins, I’m concerned about Tua Tagovailoa. Forget the Deshaun Watson rumors — this is Tua’s real rookie season, considering he had no 2020 offseason and was shuttled in and out of the lineup during the season.

This year, he’s got his old Alabama teammate Jaylen Waddle to throw to, along with underrated targets such as DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki. Will Fuller IV should make this offense more vertical, and if Tua can improve that facet of his game, the Dolphins will make me regret picking them to finish this low.

The defense surprisingly moved on from Kyle Van Noy, who along with Davon Godchaux, is now in New England. The Dolphins’ secondary is among the best in football, but there’s some contract drama with Xavien Howard. It just feels like some off-field distractions and the loss of key free agents will cause Miami to regress in 2021 — but I expect them back near the top of the division in 2022.

Jets 5-12

It’s a good thing new Jets coach Robert Saleh is stoked for adversity — because he’s about to get a ton of it.

The notion that things will get worse in New York before they get better doesn’t just apply to the rookie QB … it applies to the rookie coach.

Yes, Gang Green got an infusion of talent in free agency, adding Corey Davis to an offense that drafted Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore and Michael Carter to resuscitate a unit ranked dead last in scoring and yardage in 2020. But with a rookie QB at the helm and a bunch of new pieces, the Jets will sputter, at least initially (even if they believe they have “the best scheme in the world“).

The defense lost Carl Lawson, the crown jewel of the team’s free-agent haul, who had a great camp, to a season-ending ruptured Achilles — only to replace him with Shaq Lawson (no relation). The Jets’ D has good building blocks in Quinnen Williams and C.J. Mosley (presumably, anyway; the latter has played only two games for the Jets in two years) so the cupboard isn’t bare for Saleh. But he’ll have to prove his defensive acumen and then some if this unit is going to be good enough to carry the load until the offense is better.

Also, I have to see the Jets effectively use these young players to believe it. Their ability to acquire all the draft capital they have means little considering they have traded away the last six players they selected with their first-round picks. I like Saleh, but this is gonna be an ugly first season.

Rob Woodfork

Rob Woodfork is a versatile broadcaster with a broad range of experience. He can be heard in in WTOP's traffic center and on the Sports Desk and his byline is on WTOP.com as a web writer/editor and sports columnist.

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