Tomase: When things are going bad, woeful AFC East always makes everything better

John Tomase
October 01, 2018 - 12:04 am
John Simon

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

Whatever ailed the New England Patriots the last two weeks, it's nothing the AFC East couldn't fix. What a surprise.

Over the last two decades, we've identified three pillars of success in Foxboro: quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft. But we shouldn't forget the fourth factor in this amazing run -- the putrid state of the immediate competition.

Pillar might be too strong a word if we're using architectural metaphors, but it's at least a post. Maybe even a retaining wall.

The Patriots needn't ever worry about the long-term ramifications of slow starts or critical flaws in the same way that other contenders might, because they know they'll never be challenged in football's sorriest division.

If you thought this year would be any different . . . wait, you really thought that? Even joyless black-hearted doomsayers like yours truly didn't see the Patriots possibly losing this one.

The Dolphins rolled into Foxboro with a 3-0 record and a chance to deal the Patriots a third straight loss for the first time since 2002, when the championship drought of the Red Sox stood at 84 years and Jayson Tatum was -- this math can't be right -- four years old.

Whatever hope Miami might've carried into Gillette was extinguished relatively immediately by a staggering display of ineptitude that told us as much about the competition as the hosts. So tap that reservoir of legendary Patriots fan humility and save the I-told-you-so-I-was-never-worried-I-can't-believe-you-were-worried proclamations for a couple of weeks until the Pats play someone decent from somewhere else.

On Sunday, they romped to a 38-7 victory that could've been 108-0 if they felt like flipping the Tecmo Bowl scoreboard. The Patriots did whatever they wanted, whether it was watching the previously maligned Sony Michel run wild, reintroducing James White to the offense and therefore the end zone (twice), or deploying a reinvigorated defense that showed some pride after two weeks of turnstiling.

But let us not deny the Dolphins their share of the credit. Miami's first pass should've been picked, it's third snap went for holding, it basically surrendered on the ensuing third-and-long, and then Matt Haack shanked a punt. Bing, bang, boom, Tommy Heinsohn might say, if he deployed that phrase to connote futility. Way to show up, Fish. Not even the emotional return of Brandon Bolden could save you.

It only worsened from there. The Pats were spared a three-and-out on their first possession by a generous pass interference call, leading to points. The backfield of Michel and White ran all over the Dolphins like one of those halftime highlights of a local Pop Warner game (btw, that moodiness when you're 20 will be CTE, kids). Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill somehow made every wobbly throw on a pleasant fall day look it was being tossed into 60 mph winds. Miami committed 10 turnovers for 89 yards, and if you doubled both numbers, I still might've taken the over.

Miami couldn't get out of its own way because the division is a joke. With the exception of a random Brett Favre or Mark Sanchez Jets team, the East never poses a challenge. Since the NFL realigned to eight divisions in 2002, the AFC East has produced the fewest playoffs teams in the conference at 22, compared to 23 for the West, 24 for the South, and 27 for the rough-and-tumble North. Each other division has produced both wild card teams in the same season at least once, and the North has done it twice. The East: zero.

So while Pittsburgh must contend with the Ravens on a yearly basis -- not to mention the occasional Bengals team that's good for 10 to 12 wins -- the Patriots feast on a steady diet of slop that technically includes "playoff teams" like last year's Bills, who fell out a window and into the postseason on a miracle loss by the Ravens in Week 17 before tallying three measly points against the Jags in a first-round ouster.

Outside of back-to-back conference finals by the Jets under Rex Ryan in 2009-10, the Patriots are tested in the division about as often the WWE asks its wrestlers to pee in a cup.

That didn't change on Sunday, and it won't change the rest of the season. We measure the Patriots by a higher standard than division titles, which is why those of us concerned by the last couple of weeks were talking about what might happen in the playoffs.

Hoist the banner now, not that anyone cares: New England Patriots, 2018 AFC East champs. Better yet, leave it on the side of the McGrath-O'Brien for three idiots from Malden.

It's that worthless.

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