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AFC East preview: Pats' challengers have work to do before capitalizing on Brady ban

The eternal question: Can anyone unseat the Patriots? The question marks up and down the division make Tom Brady's suspension seem survivable.

Love ’em or hate ’em, the Patriots have earned a tip of the cap for their remarkable success over the past 15 seasons. During that stretch, New England has captured 13 division titles, including its ongoing run of seven straight. Only the 2002 Jets and ’08 Dolphins have interrupted the festivities with AFC East crowns.

However, every year those blips—coupled with the usual preseason gusto—help fuel the belief that New England is vulnerable. Rarely have those claims carried as much weight as they do this season, as the defending division champs prepare to open the year without all-world quarterback Tom Brady.

Of course, the other teams in this division all have their own issues to worry about. The Jets will be without suspended DE Sheldon Richardson in Week 1, and they only just re-signed their starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick—though the long preseason gives him plenty of time to find his footing before Week 1. The Bills are hemorrhaging defenders, including first-round pick Shaq Lawson (shoulder), second-round pick Reggie Ragland (knee, out for year) and star defensive lineman Marcell Dareus (suspension). And the Dolphins made another coaching change this off-season, summoning Adam Gase to lead an unsettled roster.

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Frankly, the division could use a real scrap up top. New England has not lost more than two games within the division in any season since 2000. The AFC East also has not produced multiple playoff teams since ’09 and ’10, when the Jets joined their arch-rivals in the postseason. New York pushed deep into last season, too, only to miss the playoffs at 10–6, two games back of New England in the division.

Both Miami and Buffalo will get a crack at the Patriots before Brady returns—the Dolphins in Week 2 and the Bills in Week 4, both in Foxborough. The Jets do not see the Patriots until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in Week 12, before a Christmas Eve rematch.

Sooner or later, a breakthrough will happen. Or at least, that’s what the Bills, Dolphins and Jets keep telling themselves.

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Favorite: New England Patriots

So long as Brady and Bill Belichick are together (for at least three quarters of the season), the Patriots are going to have a target on their backs. Brady’s absence does represent a roadblock that the team hasn’t dealt with since the future Hall of Famer suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1 of 2008. That was the last year New England did not win the division.

“We know what we have to work with, and that’s what we’re doing,” Belichick said after learning that Brady would miss Weeks 1 through 4.

What he has to work with is third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was briefly primed to fill in for Brady last year, before the suspension was reversed. Garoppolo wound up throwing four passes during the regular season, completing one.

He will have to lean on the Patriots’ familiar collection of pass-catching talents where he can: Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and a bevy of versatile running backs. New to the mix this season is tight end Martellus Bennett, who will combine with Gronkowski to give New England an unmatched one-two punch at the position.

The defense may have to carry the way if Garoppolo falters (or Brady shows some rust). At least early, the Patriots also will be without valuable end Rob Ninkovich, who recently tore his triceps. Another defensive playmaker, Chandler Jones, was traded to Arizona for interior O-lineman Jonathan Cooper this off-season.

It won’t be easy for the Patriots, but this division is theirs until someone steals it.

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Dark Horse: Buffalo Bills

The Jets came closest to unseating the Patriots last season and have the talent on paper to be a threat again. Both factors knock them from “dark horse” consideration.

Buffalo, on the other hand, would have to be considered a surprise if it held first place in December. After all, the Bills have finished above .500 just once in the past decade and have not been to the playoffs since the 1999 season.

Those aforementioned setbacks involving Lawson, Ragland and Dareus will be difficult to overcome—all significant hits for Rex Ryan’s defense as it tries to bounce back from a disappointing 2015.

“I’ve said it from Day One: we’re going to be better,” Ryan declared in mid-August, via ESPN. “We will definitely be better than we were last year, in my opinion. Regardless of those [injuries and the Dareus suspension], this defense will be better.”

Offensively, the Bills will bank on QB Tyrod Taylor to build off his impressive 2015. The front office recently rewarded Taylor with a contract extension, and he has the weapons—LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins chief among them—to put up a huge year.

Division MVP: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

Not that anyone has trouble appreciating Brady, but his absence could put the Patriots into a hole this season. Now 39, Brady will have to hit the ground running once he returns against Cleveland in Week 5. That shouldn’t be a problem, given the way he continues to deliver on an annual basis. Brady threw for 4,770 yards last season (third most in his career) and led the league with 36 TD passes, again putting up those numbers without a true No. 1 receiver.

Potential breakout player: DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins

Parker broke out late in his rookie season, averaging 74 yards receiving over Miami’s final six games and closing out the year with 106 yards and a touchdown against New England. Only then did the Dolphins get a chance to see the Parker they had drafted, as opposed to the high-upside player sidelined by a lingering foot injury. With Gase expected to help turn the offense loose, Parker stands to benefit.

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Rookie to watch: Darron Lee, LB, Jets

The Jets entered this spring’s draft wanting to get younger and more athletic at linebacker. Enter Lee and edge rusher Jordan Jenkins, both of whom should be in the starting lineup come Week 1. Even if Lee can’t leapfrog veteran Erin Henderson by then, he figures to be on the field extensively in nickel situations. His athleticism is off the charts—ideal for a league with more multi-threat running backs and tight ends than ever before.

Coach with the most to prove: Rex Ryan

Ryan has brought some of this on himself with his bravado. To wit: Upon arriving Buffalo last season, he proclaimed the Bills would make the  playoffs that year—a statement he later said he regretted making. This is just his second year with the organization, but the Bills are built to win in the very near future, so another 8–8 or sub-.500 season won’t cut it. Ryan also has not produced a winning season since his Jets finished 11–5 in 2010.

Must-watch divisional game: Patriots at Jets, Nov. 27.

New England will face three playoff teams during a five-game midseason stretch—the Bengals, Steelers and Seahawks—then turn around and visit the Jets in Week 12. By then, we’ll have a very good idea of which teams are legitimate playoff contenders. Two things to keep in mind with regard to the Jets: 1) This game comes after their bye; 2) They open the season playing five of six against 2015 playoff teams, just two at home. If they’re still in the hunt when New England comes calling, it will be well past time to take them seriously.