What Should the Patriots Be Thankful For? The AFC East

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Searching for something to be thankful for this holiday season?

Look no further than the fact that the Patriots call the AFC East home.

Since 2001, New England is 90-24 against the Bills, Dolphins, Jets and (for two games prior to realignment), Colts. That’s a .789 winning percentage.

Let that sink in for a second. But what if, when the Houston Texans joined the NFL as its 32nd team in 2002... the Colts had remained in the AFC East? What if the Dolphins, who geographically fit the AFC South just as much as the East, joined up with the Texans, Jaguars and Titans instead?

The Patriots annually played the Colts, anyways, in the first decade of the century due to the NFL’s scheduling template which calls for division winners to play other division winners within the conference each year. New England was 4-4 against Indianapolis in the regular season (6-5 overall) between 2003-10, Peyton Manning’s final season with the team. What if the Patriots had to face the Colts twice a year – in addition to the playoffs?

New England has been equally excellent outside of the AFC East under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, owning a 144-49 winning percentage (.762) against everyone else since 2001 – a mark which is the best in the NFL. It is 60-33 (.645) against playoff teams in a given season and 75-45 against teams that finished with winning records (.625), each of which is also the top mark ahead of the Steelers – whose winning percentages are .480 and .440, respectively, in said situations.

Still, getting six games against the Bills, Dolphins and Jets guaranteed each season is a luxury no other NFL team has had. In the AFC North, for example, the Steelers are 33-7-1 vs. the Browns since they reentered the NFL in 1999 and 34-10 vs. the Bengals in the same timeframe. But against the Ravens, Pittsburgh is just 23-22.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh are in the next tier down from the Patriots among NFL contenders in the 21st century, having won two Super Bowls apiece. What’s prevented either one of them from getting to New England’s level is, in part, the fact that they’re in the same division and aren’t guaranteed free wins against the other.

Why exactly is the AFC East the way it is?

Much, if not all of the disarray in the AFC East over the last two decades can be traced to incompetent coaching and quarterback play away from Foxboro.

It’s well documented just how many head coaches the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have cycled through since the Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000. There’ve been 22 different fulltime head coaches between the three teams – Rex Ryan coached both the Jets and Bills – in addition to five interim head coaches.

But the draft capital the organizations have spent in pursuing a quarterback to compete against the Patriots is just as alarming. Since 2000, the AFC East collectively has drafted more quarterbacks in the first three rounds than any of the other seven divisions, with 18; even with New England, which hasn’t drafted a quarterback in the first round since Drew Bledsoe in 1993, the AFC East is tied for second among the league’s eight divisions with seven QBs taken in round one.

The Bills (JP Losman, EJ Manuel, Josh Allen) and Jets (Chad Pennington, Mark Sanchez, Sam Darnold) are among the eight NFL teams to draft three or more quarterbacks in the first round since the turn of the century. The Dolphins have taken just one QB in the first – Ryan Tannehill in 2012 – but that’s just as good an example of what can go wrong when you over commit to a first-round passer. Miami also took a quarterback in the second round three years in a row between 2007-09 (John Beck, Chad Henne, Pat White), who combined went 13-22 for the ‘Fins.

The Dolphins, along with the Jets (Kellen Clemens, Geno Smith, Christian Hackenberg) are the only two NFL teams to use three second-round picks on a quarterback in the 21st century. New York’s trio went 16-23 in East Rutherford, with Hackenberg failing to ever see the field.

Wondering what Belichick is thankful for?

“The opportunity to coach the team and the players and staff we have here,” he said Wednesday morning. “The opportunity to be a head coach in the National Football League for the New England Patriots.”

Belichick and Brady have reduced the rest of the AFC East to rubble, but it’s a two-way street. Take the Patriots out of the AFC East, and it goes from having the best winning percentage against non-AFC East teams since 2000 to the worst.

None of this is to diminish what the Patriots have done. After all, they’re 30-10 in the postseason under Brady and Belichick, with only two of their 40 games vs. an AFC East team.

They’ve undeniably had an easier time than most in terms of getting to the postseason, of course. Which is no reason not to be thankful that the Patriots are once again on the verge of sweeping through the AFC East en route to a first-round bye for the ninth straight season.

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