WHAT DOES THE AFC EAST LOOK LIKE IF THE PATRIOTS WEREN'T A DYNASTY?

Andrew Brown
25 June 2019
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WHAT DOES THE AFC EAST LOOK LIKE IF THE PATRIOTS WEREN'T A DYNASTY?

There's been a lot of debate lately about the proficiency of the AFC East, which we've already addressed in detail. But one piece was missing from the whole thing that I felt necessitated its own attention.

Many detractors point out the lack of playoff appearances by the rest of the AFC East teams over the years of the Patriots dynasty. The argument is that the Patriots benefit from not having a "challenger to the throne" for the division title each year. My hypothesis is that the Patriots have exerted a strong downward force on the rest of their division based on their dominance. This has had a chilling effect on the other 3 teams in certain ways: lower win percentages -> higher turnover -> less consistency -> lower win percentages. 

Since NFL teams only play 16 games in a season, could a swing of 1-2 wins/losses really make a difference? How often would a team viewed as "mediocre" make the playoffs if a couple of their results went the other way?

This got me thinking. What would the AFC East have looked like if the Patriots hadn't won 75% of their games against their divisional foes? Let's find out.

The Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have arguably given the Patriots the hardest time over the years. Since 2000, no team has beaten the Patriots more times than Miami. The emerging narrative as of late has been about the Patriots struggles when playing the Dolphins in Miami, and it definitely has merit. Yet since 2000, the Dolphins have made the playoffs only 4 times: 2000, 2001, 2008, and 2016.

Now, if my Downward Pressure hypothesis were to bear out, it would make sense that the reason that Miami has missed the playoffs would be because of the regular season losses to the Patriots. 

The Dolphins haven't really had a good time in the latter half of the Patriots dynasty, but were a strong team earlier on. Between 2000 and 2008, they finished with at least nine wins 6 out of the 9 years. They made the playoffs 3 of those times, but missed the wildcard the other three. Let's take a look at those other three seasons.

2005 Playoffs

  1. Colts
  2. Broncos
  3. Bengals
  4. Patriots
  5. Jaguars (12 - 4)
  6. Steelers (11 - 5)

  7. Dolphins (9 - 7)
Dolphins Sweep (10 - 6)

2003 Playoffs

  1. Patriots
  2. Chiefs
  3. Colts
  4. Ravens
  5. Titans (12 - 4)
  6. Broncos (10 - 6)

  7. Dolphins (10 - 6)
Dolphins Sweep (12 - 4)

2002 Playoffs

  1. Raiders
  2. Titans
  3. Steelers
  4. Jets
  5. Colts (12 - 4)
  6. Browns (9 - 7)

  7. Dolphins (9 - 7)
Dolphins Sweep (10 - 6)

Miami went 3-5 vs the Pats over this span, splitting each year except 2003 (where the Pats won both games). In 2005, this didn't make a difference; even if we give the Dolphins another win they are still a game behind the 6th ranked Steelers. 

But. 

In both 2002 and 2003, the Patriots managed to keep the Dolphins out of the playoffs. Even if we don't give both games in 2003 to the Dolphins, they still would take the wildcard spot from the Broncos and Browns respectively by winning one more game in each of those seasons. 

There's also 2013, where the Dolphins went 8-8 which is admittedly as mediocre as you can get. However, 2013 was one of those years when a 9-7 team (the Chargers) snuck into the 6th seed wildcard spot. If the Dolphins had managed to take one more game from the Pats that year, they would have the same record as the playoff-bound Chargers. Who they beat earlier that year, giving them the tiebreaker.

If the Dolphins had made the playoffs in these 3 years, would the landscape of the AFC East have been any different? Would they have been able to build on a defense led by Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor? Or an offense with 1,800 yard rusher Ricky Williams? It would be easy to see the Dolphins of the early 2000s getting a foothold on the division, which then changes the dynamic of the entire early dynasty.

Now let's take a look at the Jets.

The New York Jets

Surprisingly, the Jets and the Dolphins have the same overall record (137-151) since the beginning of the 2000 season. Unlike the Dolphins, who have been mired in mediocrity for a lot of those years, the Jets seem to go in a boom and bust cycle through the years. Nine times they've finished the season with at least 9 wins. But six times they've finished with 4 or 5 wins. 

But when the Jets do well, they tend to make the playoffs. Of those 9 winning seasons, they made the post-season 6 times: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010. 

And yet, there are still instances where the Jets put together a good season, only to see themselves on the outside looking in. Specifically, 2011 and 2015:

2015 Playoffs

  1. Broncos
  2. Patriots
  3. Bengals
  4. Texans
  5. Chiefs (11 - 5)
  6. Steelers (10 - 6)

  7. Jets (10 - 6)
Jets Sweep (11 - 5)

2011 Playoffs

  1. Broncos
  2. Patriots
  3. Bengals
  4. Texans
  5. Steelers (12 - 4)
  6. Bengals (9 - 7)

  7. Jets (8 - 8)
Jets Sweep (10 - 6)

Funnily enough, the Jets found themselves in the same position during the 2013 season as the Dolphins. They went 8-8, but would have been 9-7 if they had beaten the Pats one more time. This would have actually given the Jets the third tie breaker:

  • No head-to-head matchup
  • Both teams tied for conference record (6-6)
  • Jets were 2-3 against common opponents (Titans, Bengals, Dolphins, Raiders) vs Chargers 1-4.

Jets make the playoffs.

So instead of only making the playoffs twice in the Rex Ryan era, the Jets are playoff-bound 4 times between 2009 and 2013. And any Patriots fan can tell you the dangers of playing the Jets in the playoffs. Does this fuel the beginning of a Jets dynasty instead of a revival of the Patriots one? 

And last but not least: the Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills

Since losing 4 Super Bowls in a row, times have been tough for the Buffalo Bills. They've (rightfully) been seen as the Patriots whipping post since Brady and Belichick started their reign of terror on the AFC East back in 2000. The Bills have made the playoffs only once (2017), and just barely squeaked in with a 9 - 7 record thanks to some Andy Dalton magic against the Ravens in the last week of the regular season. But could even these Buffalo Bills have had a different story if a couple of games vs the Pats gone differently? Actually, yes.

2006 Playoffs

  1. Chargers
  2. Ravens
  3. Colts
  4. Patriots
  5. Jets (10 - 6)
  6. Chiefs (9 - 7)

  7. Bills (7 - 9)
Bills Sweep (9 - 7)

2004 Playoffs

  1. Steelers
  2. Patriots
  3. Colts
  4. Chargers
  5. Jets (10 - 6)
  6. Broncos (10 - 6)

  7. Bills (9 - 7)
Bills Sweep (11 - 5)

2002 Playoffs

  1. Raiders
  2. Titans
  3. Steelers
  4. Jets
  5. Colts (12 - 4)
  6. Browns (9 - 7)

  7. Bills (8 - 8)
Bills Sweep (10 - 6)

In every year when the Bills were on the cusp of the playoffs (2002, 2004, 2006) they were swept by the Patriots (it happens a lot with the Bills). If the roles had been reversed, the Bills make the playoffs in both years. In the 2006 playoff race the Bills would have worked themselves into a tie with the Chiefs for the last wildcard spot. Looking at the NFL tiebreakers, it would come down to the second level:

  • Head-to-head matchups (none)
  • Conference Record: Bills (7 - 5) over Chiefs (5 - 7)

So the Bills move into the last wildcard slot over the Chiefs, putting THREE AFC East teams in the playoffs that year. Not exactly something that happens in a weak division, is it?

But wait, there's more.

2015 Playoffs

  1. Broncos
  2. Patriots
  3. Bengals
  4. Texans
  5. Chiefs (11 - 5)
  6. Steelers (10 - 6)

  7. Bills (8 - 8)
Bills Sweep (10 - 6)

2014 Playoffs

  1. Patriots
  2. Broncos
  3. Steelers
  4. Colts
  5. Bengals (10 - 5 - 1)
  6. Ravens (10 - 6)

  7. Bills (9 - 7)
Bills Sweep (10 - 6)

The Rex Ryan Resurgence had the Bills on the cusp again in the mid teens, only to miss out on the playoffs by a game or two. In 2014 the Bills split the season series with the Patriots; giving them one more win would put Buffalo in a tie against the sixth-seeded Ravens. Unfortunately, in this case the Ravens would win the tie-breaker on Common Game W/L Record:

  • Bills: 2 - 3 vs Dolphins, Chargers, Texans & Browns
  • Ravens: 3 - 2 vs Dolphins, Chargers, Texans & Browns

However, in the 2015 season the Bills were (again) swept by the Pats in their two meetings. If we swap this the Bills gain 2 more wins on the season, putting them even with the Steelers for the last wildcard spot. This time, the Bills take the tie-breaker on Conference Record (9 - 3) over the Steelers (7 - 5). Rex Ryan strikes again and brings the Bills back to the promised land. So over the course of the Patriots Dynasty, even the lowly Bills were within arms reach of the playoffs three separate times. 

Conclusion

Yes, this is a wholly unscientific and revisionist historical butchering. But the exercise does still show that just because the AFC East has only really sent one team to the playoffs over the years, it has more to do with the downwards pressure of the Patriots dynasty than the futility of the rest of the division. There have been challengers that have risen in an attempt to dethrone the division leader, but unlike other divisions the Patriots were able to fend off their division mates (and every other challenger, for that matter). So instead of having a second place team finishing 11 - 5 or 12 - 4, the Patriots have made sure that nobody was able to present a threat to their stranglehold on the AFC East.

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