Margin for error played an essential role in the Patriots’ 21st-century dominance. In addition to the advantages Bill Belichick and Tom Brady provided, the gulf between the Patriots and their AFC East rivals created opportunities that helped New England to optimal playoff real estate and Super Bowls.
The inability of the Bills and Dolphins to create contender blueprints for most of this century -– and the Jets falling off the radar early in Mark Sanchez’s career -– allowed the Patriots room to annually tinker and find formulas for the stretch run. The Pats' built-in edge helped produce a record nine consecutive playoff byes and five more Super Bowl appearances to cap their dynasty's second leg.
The MGM and Bovada sportsbooks favored the Pats to win a 12th straight division title before their Cam Newton signing. But the margin for error that allowed for this annual assumption is gone.
Despite entering last season with the AFC’s third-worst Super Bowl odds, the Bills nearly caught the Patriots. Even after Newton’s New England pledge, Buffalo carries a superior roster. Some may believe it's borderline ludicrous to say the Bills -- 3-30 vs. New England since September 2003 -- are a better bet to win the division.
But they are.
During the Pats’ NFL-record streak of 17 straight 10-plus-win seasons, their division rivals trudged through a few rebuilds. Between 2011-18, these efforts collectively cratered; the three franchises combined for two 10-win seasons. But the Bills finally crafting one that worked makes the division's 2020 race an interesting battle between the importance of coaching and quarterback play vs. overall roster quality.
If Newton stays healthy, the Patriots -- despite waiting until late June to find their starting quarterback -- will somehow still employ the division's best passer post-Brady. But the Pats will rely on a quarterback who, excepting a solid stretch to start the 2018 season, has not been particularly good since his stratospheric 2015.
Newton’s QBR since Super Bowl 50 ranks 30th, and he has been unable to stay healthy for most of this span. The shoulder and foot trouble the former MVP has encountered make him a far less stable stock than Brady. This uncertainty -- coupled with a middling skill-position group and defense featuring six projected starters who will be north of 30 by season’s end -- places the team in an unusually precarious spot.
Buffalo outflanks New England in key areas -- defensive line, linebacker, wide receiver and tight end among them. The Bills' now-Stefon Diggs-led skill contingent looks more potent than a Pats crew fronted by a 34-year-old Julian Edelman. Buffalo’s defense has not achieved what New England's nucleus has, but it features stars in All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White and Pro Bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds -- along with the underappreciated Micah Hyde-Jordan Poyer safety duo. The Bills have ranked in the top five in pass-defense DVOA two years running.
The Bills also completed a more thorough effort replacing their top two 2019 pass rushers – defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson – than the Patriots did replacing ’19 sack leaders Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy. Anchored by ex-Panther Mario Addison and 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver, Buffalo’s reassembled defensive line possesses depth rivaling almost any team.
In a COVID-19-hijacked year, the Bills are on steady ground. They return an NFL-high 88% of their starting snaps from last season, and their offensive line -– which improved significantly from 2018 –- returns intact. At 67.1%, the Patriots rank 29th in snap continuity in a year when that will be paramount.
Buffalo’s well-built roster creates a foundation for third-year QB Josh Allen, the obvious variable that could unravel this gradual rebuild. Allen hasn't completed 60% of his passes in a season, though his 9.4 average intended air yards figure (fourth last season) left less room for stat-padding.
Allen has not solidified himself as the Bills’ long-sought franchise quarterback but improved across the board in 2019, doing so with a middling aerial cast. One of the NFL’s premier route-runners, Diggs should not only raise Allen’s floor but increase the efficiency of holdovers John Brown and Cole Beasley –- career sidekicks who combined for over 1,800 yards as Allen’s top options last season.
As the coronavirus-era NFL continues to slash development time, an in-his-prime standout like Diggs entering an equation provides a bigger-than-usual advantage over a team dependent on unproven talent. A Patriots passing attack needing production from wideout N’Keal Harry (220 snaps as a rookie) and at least one of its two third-round tight end rookies injects a greater degree of variance to their offense -– one already dependent on a presently unreliable quarterback. Envisioning the Bills’ offense jumping a tier is suddenly easier than imagining the Patriots' group rebounding.
Belichick has used past gambles –- most notably Randy Moss and Darrelle Revis -– to reopen championship windows. Newton undoubtedly makes the Bills’ route tougher than it looked in a reality in which Jarrett Stidham succeeded Brady, but their door remains open.
In the AFC East, Belichick's coaching acumen has been more luxury than necessity. But for a flawed Patriots team to secure a home playoff game this season, it figures to require one of Belichick’s better coaching jobs.
How Newton and Allen perform this season could shape the AFC East for the foreseeable future, given the roster the Bills have constructed and the infrastructure Belichick provides. Newton being thrown into an unusually competitive division creates a captivating storyline for a league that needs as many of those as possible during a bleak sports year. Do not be surprised if the Bills prevail.