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AFC East roundtable: Does Aaron Rodgers’ addition change division outlook for 2023?

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Without reading the article and just the headline, I'd say it does, it makes the fight for 2nd place in the division more up in the air. Baring a major injury to the Bills, I don't see the Jets making up 6 games, I don't see them sweeping the Bills, so the most they'll do vs the Bills is split, which is what they did last season, and the same with Miami, I don't see them making up 4/5 games to catch the Bills, and the Bills haven't gotten worse either 

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The AFC East changed with NFL realignment and Tom Brady’s reign in the early 2000s. Then, once the Patriots’ grip on the division loosened with Brady’s exit in 2020, Josh Allen and the Bills assumed the lead role. Aaron Rodgers’ addition to the Jets this offseason adds yet another swerve for 2023.

Is this suddenly the best and deepest division in football? The Athletic’s Zack Rosenblatt (Jets), Mike Jones (Dolphins), Tim Graham (Bills) and Chad Graff (Patriots) discuss the ins and outs of a new day in the AFC East.

With Rodgers’ addition to the Jets, is this now the best division in football?

Jones: Nah. It’s a good division. But I would give the AFC North that designation. The BengalsRavens and Browns have legitimate shots at winning their title and making deep playoff runs. Pittsburgh also could surprise. The Bills, Jets, Dolphins and Patriots are good teams, but there are questions with each. And I’m not sold that Rodgers makes the Jets a Super Bowl team.

Graham: The AFC North looks like the most grueling division, and the NFC East is the sexiest, but the AFC East is the best from top to bottom. The weakest team still features the greatest coach of all time, and with an authentic offensive coordinator again, the Patriots might cause problems even though they won’t contend.

Rosenblatt: Yes, and I’m not sure there’s another contender. The NFC East had three playoff teams last year — EaglesGiantsCowboys — but the Giants might take a step back, and nobody is scared of the Commanders. All four AFC East teams have the talent to legitimately compete for a playoff spot, and the Jets, Bills and Dolphins have the ability to go even further than that.

Graff: It is, but not because the Jets and Bills are so good. The AFC East is the best division because there’s no freebie game. It’s like playing in the SEC West. The Dolphins and Patriots are the likely bottom dwellers of the division this season, and they have legit playoff aspirations. Any of these teams going 4-2 against their division foes will be awfully impressive.

Which team should be the favorite to win the division this year?

Jones: Buffalo has won three straight divisional titles, so until someone proves otherwise, the Bills are the best of the bunch for me. They have to shore up some things on defense and do a better job of supporting Josh Allen in the run game, and Allen has to do a better job of protecting himself. But Buffalo is still better than every other team in the division.

Graham: The Bills remain the team to beat, but for the first time since Tom Brady left the AFC East, they will need to cope with another star quarterback in their neighborhood. The Bills’ biggest concern is whether the NFL’s second-stingiest defense will slip without middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, but the unit might be stronger with the club’s most decorated secondary all back and healthy. Top cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety/captains Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde played zero games together last year. Rookie cornerbacks Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford will be better.

Rosenblatt: Until proven otherwise, it’s the Bills. On paper, they still have the best roster in the division and added more weapons on offense. They lost Edmunds on defense but otherwise return pretty much everyone — including a healthy Von Miller at some point this season — and added defensive tackle Poona Ford. And even though Allen hasn’t quite gotten it done yet in the playoffs, he’s a perennial MVP candidate, and that shouldn’t change in 2023. The Jets and Dolphins — depending on how Tua Tagovailoa plays — are looming, but they still have to get through the Bills.

Graff: I’m still taking the Bills. They were the best team in the league for parts of last season before an exhausting emotional toll at the end of the season. Their defense is still really good. And if they can figure out any sort of running game (which should be aided by Damien Harris), that offense gets even scarier. Let’s not forget they ranked second in offensive DVOA last season and EPA/play (behind only the Chiefs in both categories).

If all players are healthy, who is the best quarterback in the division?

Jones: Allen. He’s a dual-threat beast and more consistent and can put far more pressure on a defense than Mac Jones, Tagovailoa and an aging Rodgers.

Graham: It’s way too premature to muse about Allen being a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Rodgers isn’t what he used to be. Yes, he’s only two years removed from being the MVP, but he’ll turn 40 before the postseason and just posted his worst touchdown-to-interception ratio. Allen is among the NFL’s three most dangerous quarterbacks right now, and that list doesn’t include Rodgers, Tagovailoa or Jones.

Rosenblatt: I think it’s closer than people want to acknowledge, but it’s still Allen. His mobility and arm strength make him one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL, and Rodgers, especially at 39, will never be able to do the things Allen can do. But if Rodgers is healthy — which by all accounts he is — and can play at the MVP level he did just two years ago, it wouldn’t shock me if this season ended and we were talking about Rodgers as one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL again. Now, it’s the Jets, so it could also go terribly wrong, but I wouldn’t doubt a highly motivated Rodgers, who can still sling it with the best of them.

Graff: I hesitate to slight a four-time MVP prepping for an F-U tour, but Rodgers isn’t the best quarterback in the AFC East. That title (still) belongs to Allen, who is the second-best quarterback in the NFL. Too often last season, the Bills’ offense was as simple as telling Allen to go make something happen. And, amazingly, he often did. Rodgers is plenty capable of making everyone eat their words with a 2020-like performance, and I still think he’ll be a top-five quarterback this season. But Allen is top two.

Which AFC East quarterback is under the most pressure to deliver in 2023?

Jones: All four find themselves under a lot of pressure, but Jones leads the way because it’s not clear if his head coach is even sold on him. Tagovailoa has to prove he can stay healthy, but Mike McDaniel believes the Dolphins can win with him. Rodgers has to put the Jets in the ranks of the Super Bowl contenders, but he’s not looking over his shoulder. Allen has Patrick Mahomes towering over him as the best young quarterback in the league. But Jones might not even make it through the season as New England’s starter.

Graham: Let’s talk this through by weighing who has the least amount of pressure. With nothing to prove and Jets leadership on the hook for winning the trade, Rodgers has virtually no pressure at all. If he fails, he simply walks away with a shrug and a smirk, knowing his legacy already is bronzed. Tagovailoa might be anxious about the next possible concussion, but how much pressure can he be under when he has acknowledged contemplating retirement? Jones is under colossal pressure to convince New England he’s a franchise quarterback, and Bill O’Brien’s return erases most excuses. But the Patriots aren’t expected to win. The Bills are expected to contend for the Super Bowl, and Allen’s quarter-billion-dollar contract kicks in this year. Buffalo has regressed two years in a row, going from the 2020 AFC Championship Game to missing consecutive appearances by 13 seconds against Kansas City and collapsing at home against Cincinnati. Buffalo must respond in 2023.

Rosenblatt: My instinct would be to say Rodgers, but if it doesn’t work out with the Jets this season, he can just retire with no skin off his back. The Jets’ pressure is more on coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas. But Tua Tagovailoa seems to be under the most pressure. This might be his last chance to prove he’s worth investing in as a franchise quarterback. He has a ridiculous supporting cast, and Miami should have a much-improved defense with Vic Fangio running the show on that side of the ball — now it’s on Tagovailoa to prove they made the right call sticking with him rather than trying to find an upgrade.

Graff: Can it be Jones? I know that sounds crazy with Allen under pressure to get the Bills over the hump and Rodgers under pressure after bolting for New York. But hear me out: After an inspiring rookie performance, things couldn’t have gone worse for Jones in 2022, stuck with a brutal offensive coaching setup that derailed his development. Now the Patriots have to decide whether to pick up his fifth-year option after this season. He has a legitimate offensive coordinator again in O’Brien. So will he show he’s a potential top-10 quarterback whom the Patriots can build around with a season that improves on 2021? Or will he be the quarterback of last season who’s more like the 25th best signal caller in the league?

If the team you cover wins the division, __ will be why

Jones: If Miami wins, it’s because Tagovailoa stays healthy and the additional investments made on defense further elevate that unit to where the Dolphins can consistently cause fits for Rodgers, Allen and Jones.

Graham: Health. When a superstar quarterback gets his second contract, roster depth suffers. After two years with Mitchell Trubisky and Case Keenum, Allen’s new backup is Kyle Allen (19 career starts). Yet beyond the most critical position, Buffalo appears shallow at receiver, offensive line and linebacker.

Rosenblatt: Rodgers. By most metrics, the Jets had one of the best defenses in the NFL last season — and one of the worst offenses. If they had gotten better, more consistent play at quarterback — and on offense in general — the Jets likely would have made the playoffs. That was their approach to this offseason: upgrade at quarterback, bring back talent on defense and improve the offensive line. Rodgers was their dream target, and they got him, and there is no excuse now for the offense to be as stagnant as it was last year, especially in the red zone. If Rodgers plays like he did in 2022, which was a down year by his standards, the Jets are good enough to make the playoffs. If he plays like he did in 2021, they’ll win the division.

Graff: O’Brien. The Patriots’ offense regressed across the board last season with Matt Patricia running the show. But here’s the best-case scenario for the Patriots, one that, with a little luck, could have them winning the division: O’Brien’s presence and competence boost the Patriots to around the seventh- or eighth-best offense in the league. That’s not completely crazy since they ranked ninth in offensive DVOA under Josh McDaniels in 2021. So if they can pair that with another great Bill Belichick defense that ranks in the top three, the Patriots could be the surprise team in the AFC.

What is your predicted order of finish, and which teams make the playoffs?

Jones: 1. Bills, 2. Dolphins, 3. Jets, 4. Patriots.

The Bills and Dolphins make the playoffs, while Rodgers and the Jets struggle a little more than anticipated and just narrowly miss the cut.

Graham: 1. Bills, 2. Jets, 3. Dolphins, 4. Patriots.

Under the current playoff format, it’s difficult not to send two teams to the playoffs, so I’ll say the Bills and Jets make the tournament. But the records might be tamped down with the AFC East facing the AFC West and NFC East.

Rosenblatt: 1. Bills, 2. Jets, 3. Dolphins, 4. Patriots (and all but Patriots make the playoffs).

It’s hard to pick against the Bills until (or unless) they fall off. The Jets have an extremely difficult six-game stretch to start the season with four games against the Bills, Cowboys, Chiefs and Eagles — with one against the Patriots, whom they haven’t beaten since 2015. If they get out of that stretch with at least a 3-3 record (or better), they should be legitimate contenders for this division. That’s a lot to ask for a team with a new quarterback, offensive coordinator and other key pieces on offense.

Graff: 1. Bills, 2. Jets, 3. Patriots, 4. Dolphins.

Until proven otherwise, the Bills are the class of this division, even if they’ve struggled to get over the hump in the playoffs. The Jets are the sexy pick, but I’ll take the Bills’ offense over the Jets’ — though I have both teams in the playoffs. After that, the Patriots and Dolphins are pretty interchangeable, and neither is likely to make the postseason.

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A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

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