PHILADELPHIA -- The debate in New England and elsewhere is whether Tom Brady's suspension is fair and what impact it will have on the AFC East race.
But what about the NFC East? The two divisions match up this year, which means each of the four teams in the AFC East plays each of the four teams in the NFC East during the season. The Dallas Cowboys, the defending NFC East champions, are scheduled to host the Patriots on Oct. 11.
That will be the fourth and final game of Brady’s suspension. There’s no getting around it. Brady’s absence gives the Cowboys a huge advantage in that game. And since the other three NFC East teams will have to play the Patriots with Brady, that gives Dallas a huge advantage in the NFC East race, as well.
Since 2009, the NFC East has been decided by two or fewer games every year. So one likely loss turned into a likely win is a pretty significant development. Of course, that can and does happen because of injuries all the time. Two years ago, the Eagles played the Packers in Green Bay after quarterback Aaron Rodgers fractured his collarbone. The Eagles won, 27-13.
The Cowboys played Matt Flynn and the Packers about a month later. They lost, 37-36.
Injuries change the nature of games, but they are not imposed by the commissioner’s office. In punishing Brady and the Patriots, Roger Goodell is creating a competitive disadvantage for three teams in the NFC East. And that competitive disadvantage -- having to play against Brady -- is more significant and more decisive than the one Brady allegedly created by taking the air out of footballs.
There is a chance that Brady’s suspension will be reduced after his appeal. If it is cut in half and he misses two games, that will mean games against Pittsburgh and Buffalo will be affected. The Pittsburgh game will have an impact on the AFC North race, but the Steelers are the only team from that division scheduled to play the Patriots. So Pittsburgh’s break from playing Brady isn’t aggravated by having the other AFC North teams play the full-strength Patriots.
Buffalo is an AFC East rival of the Patriots. If the Bills get an edge in that game, it will be gone when the teams play again later in the season. Miami and the New York Jets have to play Brady and the Patriots twice each, so they have a little bit of a grievance. But the AFC East is not much like the NFC East. The Patriots have won the AFC East every year since 2002 except for 2008, when Brady blew his knee out in the season opener. Otherwise, the Patriots typically have won the division title by three or four games.
So the impact on the NFC East figures to be greater than the impact on the AFC East, even with Brady being unavailable for four games. The Patriots will likely be favored in two to three of those games: against Buffalo, Jacksonville and possibly Pittsburgh. Without Brady, they will likely be underdogs against Dallas.
Last year, the Cowboys beat the defending Super Bowl champions in Seattle. The Eagles lost to the Seahawks at home. That went a long way toward deciding the NFC East race. But the Cowboys earned that victory. The Eagles had home-field advantage but were unable to handle the Seahawks.
This year, thanks to the NFL, the Cowboys catch a break when they play the Patriots. The Eagles very likely catch a beating.