Will the Patriots add another division title in 2016?
That's the question to be answered by ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills), James Walker (Dolphins), Rich Cimini (Jets) and Mike Reiss (Patriots). One year ago, some analysts said the gap between the Patriots and their three division foes was closing. But as it turned out, New England never was aggressively threatened for the division crown in 2015.
As for whether this year might be different, and how many AFC East teams might make the playoffs ...
Mike Rodak, Bills: It's tough to pick against the Patriots because the last time they didn't win this division with Brady playing quarterback was 2002 (when the Patriots failed to win the AFC East in 2008, Brady was injured in the first game and missed the rest of the season). As we've seen in the 13 seasons since, it takes an injury to Brady -- which happened only in 2008 -- to derail the Patriots. Eventually, Brady will either slow down or retire and the Patriots will face stiffer competition for the division crown, but I don't see this being the year. As for how many teams qualify for the playoffs, it's hard to see three teams making it -- that has never happened in the AFC East since the NFL's division realignment in 2002 -- but I can see either the Jets or Bills squeaking into the postseason as a wild card. It would be the first time this division has sent two teams to the playoffs since 2010, when Rex Ryan brought the Jets through Gillette Stadium on his way to the AFC Championship Game.
James Walker, Dolphins: Ten wins weren't enough for the Jets to become the second AFC East team to get into the playoffs last year. But I have a feeling nine or 10 victories will be enough in 2016. Book the Patriots to win the division -- that's been the safest bet in football for most of the past 15 years. The difficult part is projecting which AFC East team will finish second. I expect the Jets to take a step back and the Dolphins to be a little better this season. Both teams could hover around .500. That leaves the Bills -- yes, the Bills -- to end the NFL's longest playoff drought and grab one of the two wild cards in the AFC. Their quarterback play was underrated last year, and Tyrod Taylor will be motivated in a contract year. The running game also is one of the best in the league, and Rex and Rob Ryan should get the defense on track. Barring major injuries, Buffalo has the potential to be a surprise team in the conference.
Rich Cimini, Jets: For the sixth straight year, there will be only one playoff team from the AFC East -- yeah, them again. We're talking about the Patriots, of course. They'll win the division by at least two games, with the Jets and Bills staying in the wild-card hunt until the end. At some point, the Jets, Bills and Dolphins will have their day. But not yet.
Mike Reiss, Patriots: Jets receiver Eric Decker recently shared his belief that the division is "up for grabs" with Tom Brady's four-game suspension, and perhaps this is the year the Bills, Dolphins or Jets finally wrestle control of the AFC East away from the Patriots. But until I see more decisive answers at quarterback for those teams, I can't pick them. As for the playoffs, with the strength of the AFC North and what I project as a bounce-back season for the Indianapolis Colts, I project a traffic jam for the wild-card spots that will leave the AFC East on the outside looking in with just one overall playoff team.