Buffalo Bills ready to rule AFC East with New England Patriots dethroned

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. to ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The torch has been passed. Finally.

The New England Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East is over, and it happened earlier in the season than many anticipated. The Buffalo Bills (11-3) clinched the division title for the first time since 1995 in Week 15, wrapping it up before Monday's showdown with the Patriots (6-8) at Gillette Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

The Patriots had won 11 straight division titles from 2009 to 2019, the longest streak in NFL history. It wasn't close. The Los Angeles Rams (1973-79) are second with seven straight titles.

Since coach Bill Belichick's second season in New England (2001), the Patriots have posted a 93-27 record in division play, which is the best in the NFL. And since realignment in 2002, the Patriots won 16 AFC East titles. Again, an NFL best.

Buffalo's fortunes changed when it hired Sean McDermott as coach in 2017, pairing him with general manager Brandon Beane.

"I'd say [the Bills have] really gotten better every year," Belichick said. "They've constructed a very good team through a combination of drafts, trades, signings, and it's fit together very nicely for them.

"They have good quality, good depth, and they don't make very many mistakes. They're a smart team that plays hard and don't do many things to hurt themselves, forcing opponents to go out there and execute well for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. They've really put together a strong club."

The euphoria in Western New York was reflected upon the team's return from its Week 15 win in Denver that clinched the division title. It was nearly 2 a.m. on Dec. 20 and hundreds of passionate Bills fans, many wearing masks over their faces, lined the fence at the airport to cheer coaches and players as they exited their plane.

"That was incredible, man, and it will stay with me the rest of my life," McDermott said. "Just great for this city, great for our fans, great for our players to experience that. You get home in the middle of the night, and it's as cold as it was, and fans are out there to welcome us home -- it's special."

The last time the Bills won a division title, Marv Levy (now 95) was coach, and future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly (quarterback) and Bruce Smith (defensive end) were still leading the charge. McDermott said he received a congratulatory note from Levy after the Bills clinched the division.

The Bills beat the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card round of the playoffs that season before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round. Similar to '95, the Dolphins are making their own playoff charge this season (they can clinch a berth by winning the regular-season finale in Buffalo), which sparks a bigger-picture question as it relates to the AFC East:

Are the Patriots, locked into a third-place finish in 2020, looking at a sustained period of rebuilding similar to what those two franchises -- including the basement-dwelling New York Jets -- have endured?

As a springboard into Monday night, here's a closer look at the gap between the Bills and Patriots.

The 'big hurdle'

To call unseating the Patriots as the AFC East champion a major step toward Buffalo's larger goal is accurate, but somehow undersells its importance.

The Bills witnessed New England's reign atop the AFC East with a craned neck. From the turn of the century to last season, the teams met 40 times; Buffalo won five.

But the tide began to turn for Buffalo last season. New England swept the Bills for the third straight year, but Buffalo was in position to win both games until the final minutes. It felt like there was hope on the horizon.

This offseason, the Bills made strides to improve their scoring output -- one of Beane's priorities after their 22-19 overtime playoff loss to Houston. Beane's other focal point was to play games at home during the postseason, and the only way to ensure that happened was to dethrone the division's bully.

"We need to host playoff games here in Orchard Park," Beane said in September. "We haven't been able to take down the Patriots yet -- nobody has since we've been here. That's still the team we're chasing.

"I'm sure the Jets and the Dolphins are thinking the same thing. That's our goal, that's our focus. We've got to try to compete and win the AFC East. ... That's a big hurdle that we need to do here."

Flash forward to December, the Bills look like the new AFC East power. Josh Allen should finish no worse than third in MVP voting and has likely earned himself a hefty contract extension after putting together arguably the greatest statistical season for a quarterback in franchise history. Buffalo's cornerstone players are locked up as well -- wide receiver Stefon Diggs, left tackle Dion Dawkins and cornerback Tre'Davious White are under contract for at least the next four years while standout linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are up for extensions of their own this coming offseason.

The Bills players and staff are behaving as if they have been here before -- even though many of them were not born the last time the Bills were in this position.

"I just look at it as the next game," McDermott said Wednesday of the Week 16 matchup. "They're a good team, we have a tremendous amount of respect for them and how they do things, what they do in terms of how they've been able to win multiple, multiple division titles."

But it's not just another game -- more like another reminder the Patriots' dynasty, as great as it was, has ended like all dynasties eventually must.

The torch has been passed. Whether Buffalo can keep it away from the upstart Dolphins is a legitimate question moving forward, but there is no doubt New England's reign in the AFC East is over.

Life after Brady, dynasty

The question that looms over Belichick's team is an unfamiliar one: What's the plan at quarterback?

Tom Brady had the spot locked down from 2001 to 2019, and it wasn't really until 2014 -- when the club drafted quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round -- that a significant investment was made at the position with the future in mind.

It is well documented how that situation played out: Brady essentially outlasted the succession plan, helping the team to three Super Bowl championships after Garoppolo was selected.

Enter quarterback Cam Newton for 2020 in a season he acknowledged hasn't met Patriots standards. Newton said on social media he wants to be part of the solution, but whether Belichick sees that as what is best for the team is uncertain.

In 13 games this season, Newton is 216-of-328 for 2,381 yards (65.9%), with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He has rushed for 489 yards on 122 carries and 11 touchdowns. Perhaps complicating the team's evaluation of Newton is that he wasn't surrounded by a top-tier group of wide receivers and tight ends.

With Newton's contract expiring after the 2020 season and 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham, a possible future option at the position, behind him on the depth chart, Belichick has fielded consistent questions as to who will play quarterback in the final two games of the season. Belichick said Newton will start against the Bills, but also acknowledged there are important longer-range conversations to have now that the team is eliminated from the playoffs.

"We have a lot of team questions we need to answer, so I think that will be the overriding thing. We'll talk about that ... and then start from a bigger-picture standpoint," he said, stressing it isn't about "any one individual."

Monday marks the first time the Patriots will be playing a game without playoff implications since the 2000 season, Belichick's first as coach. The Patriots had still been alive in the final regular-season games of 2008 and 2002, the last two times they didn't make the playoffs. And in seasons when they had already locked up a playoff berth, Belichick's decision-making was driven, in part, by planning for the postseason.

It's possible the Patriots could turn more to some of their younger players in the final two games, assessing their growth and how they factor into future team-building plans. One positive: They are among the league leaders in projected salary-cap space in the offseason (the current projection is about $61 million according to Over The Cap), so there should be flexibility to improve a roster that showed considerable holes in 2020.

But if the Patriots don't find the answer at quarterback, will any of it matter?