FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said playing a division game on the road -- which the New England Patriots will do in Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills on ESPN’s Monday Night Football -- is one of the hardest things to do in football.
For the better part of the past two decades, the Patriots have made it look easy.
They have won nine AFC East titles in a row -- a record for the most consecutive division championships -- and 15 of the past 17. They’ve also dominated the Bills. Tom Brady is 28-3 lifetime against Buffalo, collecting the most victories a quarterback has over a team in the Super Bowl era. (Brett Favre’s 26 wins over the Lions was the previous record.)
Brady and the Patriots have particularly sizzled in the past six games in Orchard Park, New York, averaging 36 points and 338 passing yards per game, with 16 touchdowns and two interceptions.
This provides a springboard to a question that has been a frequent topic of debate on New England sports-talk radio: How much of the Patriots’ AFC East reign is a result of their excellence compared to the ineptitude of the Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets?
It’s a combination, of course.
Two of the main factors for the Patriots’ impressive division run -- continuity and excellence at quarterback and head coach -- stand out compared to their rivals.
Brady has been entrenched as the starter since 2001, with Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett stepping in when the situation called for. The stability Brady has provided at the position is something the other three teams have found elusive. Consider the number of different starting quarterbacks among division rivals over that same span:
Bills (17): Alex Van Pelt, Rob Johnson, Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, Nathan Peterman, Josh Allen, Derek Anderson.
Dolphins (18): Jay Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Daunte Culpepper, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Moore, Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Brock Osweiler.
Jets (14): Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, Quincy Carter, Brooks Bollinger, Kellen Clemens, Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty, Josh McCown, Sam Darnold.
Meanwhile, Bill Belichick has seen many head coaches come and go since he was hired by New England in 2000.
Not including interim head coaches, the Bills have had seven coaches, the Dolphins six and the Jets four during Belichick’s tenure.
Asked his thoughts about the AFC East in 2018, one thing Belichick pointed out was that this hasn’t been a year of change. That makes it an outlier of sorts.
“I think there's quite a bit of continuity in some aspects,” he said. “Certainly the [Buffalo] defense and in the Miami system, all of their coordinators stayed intact. There are always new players and there are some new coaches, but I’d say overall the Buffalo system, which is similar to the Carolina system on defense, has stayed intact through Coach [Sean] McDermott, similar to Miami. I haven’t seen the Jets yet, so I don’t know about that.
“There have been years where it's been more turnover on the coaching staff, which leads to more turnover with players, which leads to more schemes. Here, I think, there's some degree of carryover."
But one thing that hasn’t changed at this point is the Patriots’ stranglehold on the AFC East.
On a week after the Patriots (5-2) won and the Dolphins (4-3), Jets (3-4) and Bills (2-5) all lost, New England is back in its familiar spot atop the standings -- with a trip to Buffalo ahead.