When I first started writing about football on a regular basis–almost a decade ago now–I wrote about how the Patriots ongoing status as a Super Bowl contender could be linked somewhat to the ongoing incompetence of the AFC East, New England’s divisional home.
Little did I know way back when that, not only would the Patriots still be a Super Bowl contender in 2019–they just won their sixth Lombardi trophy with a 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII–the rest of the teams in the AFC East would be even worse now than they were then.
As a Steelers fan who is somewhat jealous and a little resentful of New England’s success, you might say I’m just looking for excuses when I state that the Patriots’ have benefited from a very weak division.
- But how can that be so easily dismissed?
When you look around the NFL, how many teams have benefited from a continued lack of competitiveness from not just one, not just two, but all three divisional opponents?
Since the Patriots run started in 2001, the other three teams that remained in the AFC East after divisional alignment in 2002 — more on that later — have combined to make the playoffs 10 times. And only the Jets (2002) and Dolphins (2008) have managed to unseat New England as divisional champs. New York actually managed to make the playoffs six times over the first decade of the Patriots’ run, but haven’t been back to the postseason since 2010. As for Miami, only three playoff appearances since 2001–including just one since 2008. And what about the Bills?
- My goodness, they’ve been so bad, they’ve only made the playoffs one time since Bill Clinton’s second term as President of the United States.
If you calculate the win-loss totals of every other AFC East team since 2001, the Patriots have been dealing with a 7-9 opponent, which is pretty much on par with what the Steelers have had to contend with in the AFC North over that same period of time.
- If that’s the case, where is the advantage for the Patriots?
The numbers are a little misleading. First of all, every team in the AFC East has been inept, with only the Jets and Rex Ryan managing to put up a fight (remember the “I didn’t come here to kiss the Patriots rings” comment when Ryan was first hired to coach the Jets)? And, again, that was a decade ago.
As for the AFC North, the Browns have been so bad since 2001 — a grand-total of 90 wins–it totally skews the numbers. While Cleveland has been the laughingstock of the NFL since coming back into the league as an expansion team in 1999, Pittsburgh’s other two opponents in the AFC North — the Ravens and Bengals — have done what most other teams do when one particular divisional opponent has had the upper-hand too long: they’ve made it their goal to stop it.
To be fair, the Bengals overall record since 2001 has been on par with New England’s divisional opponents, but Cincinnati has managed to make the playoffs seven times since 2005 and has captured the AFC North title four times.
As for Baltimore, now we’re talking about a legitimate foe, one that simply refused to sit back and allow the Steelers to reign supreme. Equipped with a great infrastructure — including the owner, general manager and two excellent head coaches — the Ravens have made the playoffs 10 times, won the division five times and won the Super Bowl one time since 2001 (and it would be disingenuous to discount Baltimore’s Super Bowl victory following the 2000 season, which makes what the Steelers have had to contend with over the past two decades seem even more arduous).
Following the Steelers incredible comeback victory over Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 2010 regular season, the Ravens made it their offseason mission to upend the black and gold in 2011. What followed was a two-game sweep, which enabled the Ravens to capture the AFC North and a bye on a tiebreaker, while Pittsburgh had to travel to play Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos on Wildcard Weekend (you remember how that ended).
One year after suffering a heartbreaking loss to New England in the AFC title game, the Ravens captured their second Lombardi trophy with a victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
Bottom line, the Steelers, like very other team in the National Football league, have been held in-check and been held accountable by their divisional foes (and then some).
- With very few exceptions, the Patriots haven’t had to deal with accountability from their AFC East foes.
While Drew Brees and the Saints must contend with Matt Ryan and the Falcons and Cam Newton and the Panthers just to escape the NFC South every year, for example, New England begins each season with five or six divisional wins essentially in the bank.
If you’re married, you know how your work can suffer when things are tough to deal with at home. The Patriots have had nothing but domestic bliss since the day they became serious contenders almost two decades ago.
And it’s pretty ridiculous that the other teams in their division have been so bad for so long. Where’s the pride? Where’s the willingness to build a program to take New England down a notch or two? Just because you must deal with the great Bill Belichick and the GOAT Tom Brady twice a season doesn’t mean you have to play like garbage in your other 14 games.
Do you think the Packers, Eagles, Giants or Broncos would sit back and allow a divisional opponent to walk all over them for so long? It’s almost like the rest of the AFC East is just waiting for the Patriots run to end so they can come out from hiding.
Speaking of GOATs, Peyton Manning and the Colts were still in the AFC East in 2001 before divisional realignment moved Indianapolis to the newly-created AFC South a year later. Had the Patriots been forced to deal with Manning and the Colts juggernaut twice a year over the next decade-and-a-half, it seems unlikely that their run would have been as sustained and successful.
- We’ll never know for sure, of course. But we do know what the Patriots have had to deal with in Manning’s absence in terms of formidable divisional foes.
You can call it an excuse and maybe it is, but there is no question the Patriots historic run has been aided greatly by a division that has done very little to stand in their way.