It’s Week 2 and the New England Patriots already have a lead in the AFC East. It’s unlikely they’ll give it up for the rest of the season.
With the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills facing off Thursday night and a matchup with the Dolphins slated for Sunday, the Patriots have a chance to build a commanding two-game lead against two of their rivals. Given that the Dolphins haven’t won a game at Gillette Stadium in eight years, the odds of the Patriots cushioning their advantage over at least one of those teams looks pretty good.
Bill Belichick was careful not to praise Jimmy Garoppolo too much in the aftermath of Sunday’s upset win against the Arizona Cardinals, but it’s clear he was ready, and capable, of filling in for Tom Brady. The Patriots were 9.5-point underdogs entering Sunday, which was the largest point spread against them since they took on the St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl 14 years ago. With Rob Gronkowski and their two starting tackles also out, it seemed as if a loss was inevitable.
But Garoppolo shined from the moment he took the field. He completed four of his first five throws, including a 37-yard touchdown bomb to Chris Hogan. The highlight of Garoppolo’s night came late in the fourth quarter, when he connected with Danny Amendola for a 32-yard gain on a third-and-15 during the Patriots’ game-winning drive.
Now that the Cardinals game is behind them, it’s conceivable the Patriots could go 4-0 without Brady. The big challenge against the Dolphins will be combating their pass rush, which sacked Russell Wilson three times and hit him on nine occasions. But Garoppolo exhibited the ability to get rid of the ball quickly Sunday, averaging just 2.03 seconds from snap-to-throw. (For comparison’s sake, Brady averaged 2.11 seconds last season.)
Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels deserve a lot of credit for the Garoppolo game plan. They ran a balanced attack against the Cardinals (33 passes, 31 runs), but that could change against a weaker Dolphins secondary. Garoppolo, much like Brady, seems comfortable in the spread offense. Even if Gronkowski doesn’t play for the second consecutive week, Garoppolo could still spread the ball around to slot receivers Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan, who combined for 10 catches and 126 yards receiving Sunday.
A different quarterback may currently be under center for the Patriots, but they’re once again in position to take control of the division. The Jets and Bills, meanwhile, will be fighting to position themselves as credible challengers.
AFC East teams continue to beat themselves
Despite only scoring 10 points, the Dolphins were on the cusp of beating the Seahawks on the road Sunday. But then they allowed the Seahawks to march up the field for a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to close out the contest. Though the Dolphins’ defense stifled the Seahawks for the bulk of the afternoon, they couldn’t finish the job.
The loss made Kenny Stills’ drop loom even larger. Early in the second quarter, he raced down the field and was wide open for what would’ve been a 71-yard touchdown pass ... but the ball fell right through his outstretched hands.
"It’s one of those things that, we mess up, and I see it as an opportunity to make me stronger," Stills said, via the Palm Beach Post. "I’m going to go out there and continue to do what I’ve been doing, work hard and the next time I get an opportunity I’m going to make the play."
But believe it or not, the Dolphins didn’t even have the worst offensive performance in the division in Week 1. That honor belongs to the Bills, who scored a measly seven points in their loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
On the positive side, the Bills’ defense played well without a number of starting players who have been lost to suspension or injury. They held the Ravens to 13 points, with six of them coming on a 66-yard pass to Mike Wallace.
But unfortunately, the offense was lousy. Buffalo only gained 160 yards, with just 95 coming in the passing game.
Meanwhile, Rex Ryan’s former team, the Jets, are coming off a very Jets-like loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Nick Folk, who became the first kicker since 2012 to shank a 22-yarder, also missed an extra-point attempt that wound up being the difference in the 23-22 defeat.
Big picture speaking, perhaps the most concerning thing for the Jets Sunday was Darrelle Revis’ poor performance. A.J. Green torched him for 12 receptions and 180 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown catch.
The play wasn’t entirely Revis’ fault. Safety Marcus Gilchrist should’ve been there to help him over the top. But still, it was hardly an encouraging performance from the 31-year-old cornerback. With a matchup against Sammy Watkins potentially on deck Thursday — Watkins is currently questionable — it may be wise for the Jets to switch up how they use Revis and put him one-on-one against Buffalo’s No. 2 receiver. The Patriots did that throughout the 2014 season and rode Revis’ lockdown coverage to a Super Bowl title.
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Few coaches know Revis better than Rex Ryan, who’ll have to figure out a way to beat him Thursday. Though the season is only one week old, the embattled head coach already seems to be feeling the hot seat. There’s no other explanation for the profanity-laced tirade he unleashed in front of his team last week.
It’s apparent that Ryan’s message of fire and brimstone didn’t resonate with his team last week, which is troubling. If losses like that pile up, Ryan will spend the bulk of his press conferences batting down questions about team owner Terry Pegula’s reported playoff ultimatum instead of partaking in his usual boasting.
Fortunately for Ryan, he’s 8-1 in his career against Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Even with an undermanned defense, Ryan’s game plan could carry the day.
Even if the Jets lose Thursday, their postseason hopes won’t be entirely dashed. Nearly 60 percent of playoff teams since 2002 have begun the year either 1-1 or 0-2. But the losing team Thursday could find themselves in a big hole in the division if the Patriots take care of business against the Dolphins. Even though it’s early, the Bills and Jets may have to already set their sights on the wild card.
And just three days later, the Patriots could be further on track to win their 14th division title in 16 years.