Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
Not every AFC East club has played eight games, but we're entering the second half of the season. It is November. We're in Week 9, high time to start harvesting the schedules to consider which teams have a legitimate shot at the playoffs.
Preseason schedule strength is oftentimes misleading. The AFC East owned four of the league's seven most difficult schedules based on last year's records. But we all know last year's successes or failures don't always carry over, right Nashville?
Eight weeks of football, however, yield a suitable sample size of how teams are likely to perform the rest of the way.
With that in mind, we might be on the verge of a fascinating homestretch.
The Miami Dolphins actually might catch the New England Patriots.
The Patriots, Las Vegas' pick to win the Super Bowl, would appear to be in command. They lead the AFC East by a game and a half over the New York Jets and are two games ahead of the Dolphins, who, when they opened the season 0-3, were practically condemned.
But the Patriots are about to embark on the AFC's most difficult remaining schedule. Their opponents are 38-28 for a robust .576 winning percentage.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have the AFC's third-easiest path and the smoothest in the division by far. Their remaining opponents are 30-35 for a .462 win percentage.
Some fans might be comfortable with a second-place finish and a wild-card berth. That would be a reckless assumption. The way the conference is shaking out, the only AFC East team to reach the postseason will be the champion.
The AFC East and forsaken NFC West are the only divisions where the second-place team doesn't have a winning record.
It's possible the AFC North could send three teams to the playoffs, with the Cincinnati Bengals (AFC's easiest remaining schedule), Pittsburgh Steelers (fourth-easiest) and Baltimore Ravens (fifth-hardest) worthy candidates.
The Denver Broncos (eighth-toughest) appear on their way to claiming the AFC West, but the San Diego Chargers (fifth-easiest) are good enough to make a run and earn a wild card. So are the Houston Texans (sixth-toughest).
How many of those candidates can the AFC East's second-place team displace?
Let's take a look at what lies ahead for all four AFC East clubs.
New England Patriots (5-2 overall, 1-1 AFC East)
Where they've been: Despite one of the AFC's softest schedules through Week 8, the Patriots endured some turbulence. They narrowly averted an embarrassing defeat to the Buffalo Bills on opening night and lost to the Jets and the Denver Broncos. They searched for an identity offensively and defensively. Tom Brady didn't regain his form as naturally as many assumed. Third receiver Joey Galloway didn't work out. A defensive overhaul and injury to top linebacker Jerod Mayo forced a transformation that took time to work itself out.
Where they're going: The Patriots wiped their cleats on a pair of doormats before the bye week. They rolled up big scores and were sensational on defense against the Tennessee Titans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Whoopee. The Patriots need to perform against legit competition before they can be considered elite again -- at least in my book. Their next five games include the Dolphins twice, a rematch with the Jets and the top two teams in ESPN.com's power rankings, the undefeated Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. If the Patriots can escape that stretch at 8-4 or better, they'll still be in control in December. If not, then the door opens for the Dolphins.
New York Jets (4-4, 1-3)
Where they've been: The Jets have the AFC East's second-best record, but they're not the division's second-best team. They've gone from Super Bowl contenders to ordinary in a hurry. A 3-0 start against quality opposition (Houston Texans, Patriots, Titans) captured everyone's imaginations, but the Jets have won just a single game (against the Oakland Raiders) in their past five tries. The Dolphins stunned them twice, and those losses guarantee the Jets cannot have a winning record in the division.
Where they're going: The Jets have the AFC's fourth-toughest remaining schedule, a .526 win percentage. They'll need to navigate it with a rookie quarterback not used to playing in the winter elements and without star nose tackle Kris Jenkins and Pro Bowl all-purpose back Leon Washington, both done for the year. The Jets have some soft opponents ahead: Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Bills and Buccaneers. But they also have to play the Patriots in Gillette Stadium and finish the year with a treacherous threesome: Atlanta Falcons, Colts and Bengals.
Miami Dolphins (3-4, 3-0)
Where they've been: Unless the Dolphins can take advantage of their weak second-half schedule, they almost certainly will remember 2009 as the season they had two heavyweights on the ropes. They should've defeated the Saints and the Colts, but couldn't close them out. The Dolphins have remained a live team by winning all of their AFC East games thus far. Chad Pennington's season-ending shoulder injury was supposed to doom them, but they're still are good enough to beat any team in the league.
Where they're going: With a grueling part of their schedule behind them -- their opponents through Week 8 combined for a .635 win percentage -- the rest of the season opens up some possibilities to climb back into the race. Chad Henne has been shaky the past couple games, posting a 52.6 passer rating. But if he can get his act together, there are plenty of victories to be had, notably against the Buccaneers, Panthers, Bills, Jaguars and Titans from Weeks 10 through 15. The Patriots in Week 13 are the only team in that stretch with a winning record.
Buffalo Bills (3-5, 1-2)
Where they've been: The Bills are way out of it. Even if they had finished off the Patriots on opening night and escaped one of the ugliest games in NFL history with a tie against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5, they still would be a mess. There's far too much chaos -- from the offensive coordinator getting fired 10 days before the opener to the obscene number of injuries at every position except receiver and running back, where they had a Pro Bowler suspended three games. The combined record of the three teams they've defeated is 7-15.
Where they're going: Maybe they can match the standard head coach Dick Jauron set in his first three seasons by going finishing 7-9 each time. That's consistency for you. Maybe the Bills claw back to .500 against the Titans and Jaguars in their first two games after the bye. They also have the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14. But the Bills finish against the Patriots, Falcons and Colts -- maybe the most difficult final three games in the NFL. Happy holidays.