By Henry McKenna
FOX Sports AFC East Writer
The AFC East is one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, and should provide no shortage of intrigue during the 2022 season.
The Buffalo Bills are the obvious favorite not just to be divisional champions but also to be Super Bowl champions. The Miami Dolphins stocked up on offensive talent for new coach Mike McDaniel. Bill Belichick remains one of the best coaches in the history of the sport, with a quarterback in Mac Jones who appeared to be on the rise. The Jets are entering their second season under coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Zach Wilson. Maybe that continuity — when combined with fresh young talent — can keep them competitive.
So let’s dive deeper into these four teams ahead of the season.
The Bills boast a uniquely talented roster from top to bottom. Not only do they have quarterback Josh Allen, who is among the NFL’s best players, they also have one of the league’s best receivers (Stefon Diggs), tackles (Dion Dawkins), pass-rushers (Von Miller), linebackers (Tremaine Edmunds) and cornerbacks (Tre’Davious White).
The talent is off the charts. The question is whether the Bills can win when it matters. Last season, they lost to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in an epic divisional round game. This season, they’ll have to overcome that matchup. Mahomes and Allen might be headed for a QB rivalry comparable to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
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Strength: Ultimately, Allen has to be the biggest strength. He has unique gifts as a runner and passer. The game has slowed down for him after a rough start to his career. So he’s not just an athlete now — he’s a quarterback. He’s a danger to defenses and, at times, unbeatable. Just ask Bill Belichick, whose defense allowed Allen to put up 308 yards and five passing touchdowns in their postseason matchup.
Breakout Player: Can I pick a coach? Because I’ll take offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. He looks poised to seamlessly replace Brian Daboll, now the head coach of the New York Giants. Dorsey will be in charge of making good use of Allen — while also replacing receivers Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders with Gabe Davis and Isaiah McKenzie. Dorsey has never called plays, but he has been in this offensive system with Allen for three years. Dorsey should be a great fit as the team’s offensive playcaller.
Win-Loss Prediction: The Bills’ schedule seems to have two-game stints of extremely tough opponents. They open the season on Thursday against the Rams in Los Angeles. The Bills then host the Titans in Week 2. They have the Chiefs in Week 6 and the Packers in Week 7. To finish the season, Buffalo travels to Cincinnati before hosting the Patriots. None of those games will be easy and I don’t see them losing many. Prediction: 13-4
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The Dolphins didn’t fear change during the offseason. Miami hired Mike McDaniel to take over for Brian Flores. McDaniel is an offensive-minded coach, and GM Chris Grier has aggressively stocked the roster on that side of the ball. The Dolphins traded for receiver Tyreek Hill and signed Cedrick Wilson in free agency. They also inked deals with left tackle Terron Armstead and running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert.
While the offense needed work, the defense did not. It looked elite in 2021. Miami has quickly built one of the NFL’s most talented rosters. So the question is whether McDaniel can instantly turn the team into a success. The offense — and the team’s record — will revolve around QB Tua Tagovailoa, who has so far looked limited in his pro career. He’s the one player who can hold this team back.
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Strength: The Dolphins have an elite secondary, particularly when cornerback Byron Jones returns from injury. Fellow corners Xavien Howard and Nik Needham are outstanding. Jevon Holland emerged as an elite safety in his rookie season. It’s a strong unit. When Jones returns from offseason ankle surgery, they will be one of the most impressive secondaries in the NFL.
Breakout Player: Outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips finished with 8.5 sacks during his rookie season in 2021. Could he come close to doubling that sum in 2022? Phillips has been a key cog in the defense this offseason and looked solid in preseason action. He possesses the unique power and speed to generate a huge amount of pressure in 2022.
Win-Loss Prediction: There’s always the possibility that, given how many pieces the Dolphins have changed, they will start slowly. Heck, they might even start 1-3 after playing the Patriots, Ravens, Bills and Bengals to start the season. But don’t count the Dolphins out. They should be relevant at the end of the season. Prediction: 10-7
The Patriots surprised by making the playoffs in 2021, but they also disappointed when they got there. The Bills pummeled New England 47-17. So New England will need second-year quarterback Mac Jones to leap forward, which might be difficult with New England replacing former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels with a mysterious brain trust of positional coaches that includes Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
Strength: Bill Belichick is betting on himself, as usual. He has not assembled the most talented roster in the NFL. But he has players with unique skill sets on defense that seem to fit his mold. And on offense, Belichick is installing a new system that he’ll oversee. His schemes will be of the utmost importance in 2022. Typically, that’s a good thing. To this point, the offense has looked ugly. But something tells me Belichick and Jones will emerge battle-tested.
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Breakout Player: OLB Josh Uche is the team’s most talented pure pass-rusher, but he has not received much playing time over the past two years. With the team letting its veteran linebackers depart in free agency, Uche is in line for a big uptick in PT.
Win-Loss Prediction: The Patriots have a habit of getting off to a slow start, but their 2022 schedule should allow them to be competitive early. It’s just a question of whether New England can hang tough at the end of their schedule, with matchups against the Vikings, Bengals, Cardinals, Raiders and two games against the Bills. Prediction: 8-9
The Jets have a surplus of young talent, which is probably why NFL teams claimed six of their players as they cut down to 53. But it’s one thing to be young and talented, another thing to be successful. New York looks like the kind of team that will be pesky but not formidable in 2022. The Jets are far more likely to emerge as a playoff contender in 2023.
Strengths: The Jets have invested substantial assets into improving their receiving corps. They signed Corey Davis to a three-year, $37 million contract last year before drafting Elijah Moore in Round 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. This offseason, they re-signed Braxton Berrios before drafting Garrett Wilson at No. 10 overall. They have so much receiver talent that Denzel Mims, a 2020 second-round pick, demanded a trade because of a lack of playing time.
Breakout Player: It’s unclear how much success the Jets will have passing the football in 2022 under QB Zach Wilson, who is already dealing with a knee injury. But Moore looks like the real deal and will emerge as the team’s WR1 this season. And then if Garrett Wilson breaks out in 2023, the Jets will have a truly special set of wideouts.
Win-Loss Prediction: Unless these other teams falter or deal with a high volume of injuries, the Jets won’t be relevant. New York looks like a team that’s built for 2023. The only thing that can change their season? Wilson would have to have a stunning breakout Year 2 in the vein of — who else? — Josh Allen. Prediction: 4-13
Henry McKenna covers the AFC East for FOX Sports. He previously spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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