NFL Midseason Grades: AFC East
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
By James Pike.
The 2020 NFL season has been one of the most intriguing and exciting in recent memory despite the current Coronavirus Pandemic. In what has been a miserable year for the majority of people across the world the NFL has been a beacon of hope which has helped to distract us from what has been a difficult time for everyone. So far this season we have seen some absolutely outstanding games, jaw dropping performances, awe inspiring comebacks and heartbreaking defeats. Quite simply the NFL has not disappointed us so far in 2020.
Now that we are at the halfway point in the season, and we have a fair sample size for each team, it is the time of the season where we can look back and evaluate. We can now reasonably scrutinize teams depending on how they have fared so far this season, and we can start to analyze which teams have done well and which teams have struggled. The NFL landscape has dramatically changed through the first 9 weeks of the season, and we now have a clearer view as to which teams are built for success and which teams will already have an eye on the off season.
This year we have seen the rise of the phrase “the new normal”, therefore I thought it would be entirely appropriate to take a look at one the one division in the NFL which has had an ever reliable outcome for the past 2 decades. However in 2020, a new normal may finally be starting to take shape. The AFC East is no longer the New England Patriots to rule.
Up until this season the Patriots have dominated the landscape of the NFL. Other divisions across the league would see a different winner each year, with a constant power struggle going on to try and establish themselves as the top dogs. However for AFC East there was little question as to which team would be representing them in the postseason. New England’s complete domination of their division has lasted for almost two decades and it is an accomplishment that may never be replicated. This year however times have changed.
Tom Brady is gone, the Patriots are vulnerable and two new contenders have risen to challenge their might at the top of the AFC East. This could be the dawn of a new era in the NFL. An era in which one of the league’s greatest dynasties comes to an end. Well, at least the New York Jets are still terrible.
Here are my mid-season grades for the AFC East as we take a closer look at each team and analyze how they have fared so far in the 2020 NFL Season. Starting with the team currently sat in first place in the division:
Buffalo Bills (7-2) – 1st in AFC East
Offensive Points Per Game: 26.9 (14th in NFL)
Defensive Points per game: 25.9 (19th in NFL)
If this grade was done before Sunday’s statement road win against the Seattle Seahawks then it would have been lower, however we have to take into consideration such an emphatic performance against one of the best teams in the league. The Buffalo Bills have had a fantastic start to the 2020 season so far, and if they can continue to win big games like the one on Sunday, then we could be talking about this team as a real threat to win a Super Bowl come February.
The Bills raced out to an impressive 4-0 start to the season on the back of some scintillating performances from their 3rd year quarterback Josh Allen. Allen has made an enormous leap in 2020. His numbers are up across the board as he seems to have taken his game to a whole new level. He’s always had the crazy arm talent a franchise quarterback needs to succeed in this league, but Allen’s accuracy has improved dramatically this season which has propelled the Bills into being one of the most potent offences in the league. The addition of Stefan Diggs to the passing attack is another huge reason the Bills have drastically improved this season. The former Viking deep threat has helped to take the lid off of opponents allowing the Bills other receivers more opportunity to get open making Allen’s life much easier.
There have been some hiccups for Buffalo in 2020, therefore they cannot be given a perfect grade for how they have done so far. In week 5 they were completely manhandled by the Tennessee Titans, before another loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in week 6 in a much closer game. This to me is slightly concerning. Not that they have lost 2 games as we all know that it is almost impossible to go through an entire season undefeated, it is who they lost to which raises a few question marks. The Titans and the Chiefs are two teams who they could realistically be up against in the playoffs if they get there, and if the Bills have a shot at taking home the title this year; these are the teams they need to beat to get there.
The other concerns for the Bills so far have been their running game which has almost been a complete non-factor. Devin Singletary is clearly not the answer out of the backfield, and although rookie Zack Moss has flashed glimpses of his potential he hasn’t been healthy long enough to have a significant impact. The Buffalo defence has also declined compared to last season. The major reason they were so successful in 2019 was because of their defence being able to keep games close. The regression on the defensive side of the ball however might be in part due to Josh Allen’s improvements as a passer. As opposing teams are having to pass the ball way more to keep up with the Bills in games.
All in all Buffalo has been extremely impressive in 2020. Many expected that with Tom Brady gone from the Pats that the Bills would take their place as the team to beat in the AFC East, and in the first half of the season the Bills have lived up to the hype.
Miami Dolphins (5-3) – 2nd in AFC East
Offensive PPG: 27.8 (10th)
Defensive PPG: 20.1 (4th)
You’re probably wondering why I have the team with the second best record in the division with a higher grade than the team in first place? Well it is quite simple when it comes down to it. The Buffalo Bills were expected to do well in 2020. They have been building up their roster for the past 2 seasons, and with the Patriots now down a future hall of famer at quarterback they were next in line to take control of the AFC East. Many people had foreseen the Bills being a force this season.
No one, however, saw this coming from Miami.
Don’t get me wrong; Miami made some excellent moves this offseason to improve their team which most experts and fans agreed would make this team better this season. Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Emmanuel Ogbah and Shaq Lawson were added to the Miami defence and they have all hit the ground running in Florida. They of course added Tua Tagovailo in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he wasn’t expected to make an impact straight away as they had the ageless wonder and league favourite Ryan Fitzpatrick under center. These acquisitions on the defensive side of the ball were pointed to as one of the main reasons that Miami could be vastly improved this year. However, I believe I speak on behalf of everyone when I say we didn’t see them improving this much in such a short amount of time.
The Dolphins have the 4th ranked scoring defence in the league. They are simply smothering teams and taking the ball out of the opposition's hands, which has allowed their offence more opportunities to put points on the board. Even with all their new toys on the defence, it has been a player they already had in house from last season who has made the biggest leap in 2020. Xavien Howard has been simply phenomenal so far this season. Often tasked with covering teams best wide receiver; Howard has been able to shut down almost everyone, with his finest performance of the season so far coming against DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals this past week. Miami are simply a hard team to move the ball on.
The offence has been good, if not a little inconsistent. When Ryan Fitzpatrick was under center for their first 6 games the offence would either be excellent or awful. There wasn’t really an inbetween. This is indicative of how Fitzpatrick has played his entire career. He’s either Fitzmagic or Fitztragic. The move to Tagovailoa was seen as a controversial one when it was announced he would be starter from week 7 onwards. With Fitzpatrick coming off a solid run of performances, Tagovailoa had a huge amount of pressure on his shoulders to perform straight away, and early indications are that he is up to the task. He’s unbeaten as a starter, and although he looked shaky against the LA Rams he dramatically improved against the Cardinals to guide Miami to its 5th win of the season.
This team has gone from being pushovers to a tough out for any team in the league. If their defence can continue to suffocate opposing offences, and Tua can continue to balance out the offence then this team could be in serious contention for a playoff berth this year. Fans of the Miami Dolphins have had to suffer for years floundering at the bottom of the AFC East, but this year could be the start of something very special in South Florida.
New England Patriots (3-5) – 3rd in AFC East
Offensive PPG: 20.8 (28th)
Defensive PPG: 24.3 (12th=)
2020 has been an incredibly tough season for all teams in the NFL. Injuries have been happening left and right, teams are having to be extremely cautious with COVID-19 protocols and they have also had to deal with players opting to sit out the entire season due to the current pandemic. The New England Patriots have been hit harder than most.
Before the season even began in Foxboro, the Patriots were hit with 8 opt outs due to the Coronavirus pandemic. These weren’t just squad players who decided to forgo the season either: as starting guard Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, tight end Matt LaCrosse and wide receiver Marqise Lee are not available for New England. This immediately put the Pats on the back foot going into the season.
Although losing players of this calibre before the season even began is devastating: there is simply no excuse for how poor the Patriots have looked so far in 2020.
The offence has been abysmal for a lack of a better word. A lack of weapons at wide receiver was seen as one of the main reasons that Tom Brady left the organisation in the offseason and the issue is glaringly obvious now with Cam Newton under center. Too often Cam is having to improvise a play as players aren’t getting open, which has led to teams stuffing the box to stop the Patriots running game which has been its biggest strength in the past few seasons. Newton is a far cry from the player who won the league MVP back in 2015, as most of his passes appear to lack the zip they once had. His current touchdown to interception ratio reads 2/7. Newton did look better at the start of the season, however a positive COVID case seemed to take all the spark that was left out of the former Carolina superstar.
The once elite defence of the Patriots has looked vulnerable too this season. Teams have been able to move the ball down the field at will against this group which is lacking so many key pieces on that side of the ball. Stephen Gilmore has been banged up as well this season making life that much more difficult for a team missing so many parts. Teams are torching the Patriots on the ground as their defensive front simply isn’t getting enough penetration, which is setting teams up perfectly for the passing game. It just seems as though everything that could have gone wrong for New England has gone wrong this year.
Despite all of this the Patriots have been able to hang tough in most of their games so far this season. If not for a last-minute defensive stand on the goal line in Seattle, the Patriots would have beaten the Seahawks on the road in their second game of the year. A heartbreaking fumble in the final minute against the Buffalo Bills when the Pats were in the redzone cost them the victory in that game too. If those two results went a different way we could be talking about a team who is 5-3 going into the second half of the season.
Is this the end of the dynasty that has ruled the AFC East for almost two decades? Not yet. If there is one thing we have learned during their reign of terror. Is that you should never underestimate the Patriots and Bill Belichick. But all good things must come to an end, eventually.
New York Jets (0-9) – 4th in AFC East
Offensive PPG: 13.4 (32nd)
Defensive PPG: 29.8 (27th)
If you ask fans of the New York Jets how the season is going, they will probably tell you that everything is going according to the plan. They have the league’s worst record in a season where the 1st overall pick is probably more valuable than it has been in years. We all know the hype surrounding Clemson prospect Trevor Lawrence heading into the 2021 NFL Draft as he is all but a lock to go with the first overall pick come April next year. So in that respect the Jets have done exactly what they wanted to do in 2020 so far.
Nevertheless, this is one of the worst seasons by any team in NFL history.
To call the Jets a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires. They are last in the league in scoring, with the team not being able to muster enough either on the ground or through the air to threaten opposing defences. Their defence hasn’t exactly been stopping teams either, which has led to opponents putting up monster scores on the board without a pray of the offence ever being able to catch up.
Adam Gase continues to be arguably the most inept head coach in the league, as his management of players has been nothing short of awful this season. Le’Veon Bell: the team’s star free agent signing from the 2019 off season is gone. Released to free agency after only spending just over a year with the team. The fact that the front office couldn’t work out any trades for the former Steelers superstar is a testament to how badly this organisation has been run in recent years. Another example of how badly a player has been mishandled is the quarterback they drafted with the 3rd overall pick just two years ago. Sam Darnold hasn’t exactly been lighting it up in 2020 so far, however with the complete lack of faith that has been shown in the former USC standout it is little surprise that he has struggled this season.
This season has been a complete disaster for New York. There is no other way to put it. A lack of talent alone isn’t the reason why this team is floundering towards the league’s worst record. It is issues with the organisation from top to bottom as to why this team is failing on so many levels. Yes, they may be “Tanking for Trevor”, but what happens when Lawrence arrives in New York. Is he miraculously going to turn the fortunes of this franchise around? Can a once in a generation talent at the Quarterback position make up for an inept front office and a head coach who has driven away almost every talented player he has ever had? We will see. For now though the Jets are the worst team in the league, and I can’t see that changing any time soon.