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Vic Carucci: Wishful thinking aside, AFC East remains Patriots’ division

Burying the New England Patriots before the end of the season is something of an NFL tradition.

It has happened, time and again, after their typically slow starts. Tom Brady is losing his magic … His supporting cast is too banged up … Bill Belichick’s wizardry has finally run its course.

Of course, the words invariably prove to be little more than the wasted wishful thinking of the rest of the league, which is well beyond being tired of the same old story of Patriot reign.

But there they were again on Nov. 11, after the Pats’ 34-10 loss against the Tennessee Titans. In fact, the outcome moved some observers to insist, “This time they’re REALLY done! Absolutely, positively finished!”

Sorry, but that, too, is likely to wind up being another in a long line of premature epitaphs.

At 7-3, the Patriots are, by no means, finished. It’s also fair to say they aren’t having what, by their lofty standards, is a great season. Yet, as residents of the AFC East, it’s more than enough to keep them at a significantly higher level than the rest of the division, which they’re destined to win for a 10th consecutive season and 15th in the past 16.

Give Brady and Belichick their annual golden ticket to the playoffs and, well, you know what usually happens.

With the entire AFC East in a bye, this figured to be a good time to assess where each team in the division stands with six games remaining:

New England Patriots

Where they are

The Patriots have a reasonably comfortable lead in the division. Their closest challenger is the 5-5 Miami Dolphins, whose prospects of making dramatic improvement are dim.

New England’s loss to the Titans, which snapped a six-game winning streak, might have been surprising. But it was hardly the end of the world. The Pats were missing key players, most notably tight end Rob Gronkowski, due to injury. Titans coach Mike Vrabel had enough knowledge of the Patriots from his time with them as a player to use some of the “secret sauce” to his advantage.

The bad news for the rest of the AFC East is that Gronkowski and other Patriot players are getting healthy during their week off. The worse news is that, even at 41, Brady doesn’t seem to have lost much of anything.

“I think we’re getting as close as we’ve been in a long time (to full health),” he told SiriusXM NFL Radio Friday. “This is kind of a good time for the bye. We’ve been at it for 14 weeks, including the preseason. … Hopefully, we can move into this stretch healthy. I know guys are feeling better and working hard.”

What’s ahead?

Of the Patriots’ six remaining games, four are against divisional opponents: at the New York Jets on Nov. 25, at the Dolphins on Dec. 9, home against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 23, and home against the Jets on Dec. 30. They should be able to lock up another AFC East crown in those contests.

Their greatest challenges figure to come at home against the Minnesota Vikings and on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“You’re disappointed you lost because you put a lot of effort into it,” Brady told Sirius. “But I think, if you learn from the losses, it becomes a positive and you say, ‘Guys, OK, we really clearly identified what we are not doing well, what we need to put more emphasis on.’ And a lot of times losses do that. And this week so much has been about our improvement and I think that when you look back on the film you gain confidence knowing that we’ve executed really well a lot of the times or sometimes we haven’t and moving forward these are the things we’ve got to do well to execute well so that we can go play our best.

“And having all our players out there obviously helps the cause.”

Miami Dolphins

Where they are

For the Dolphins, .500 is where they’ve been seemingly forever. Since 1994, they have a 197-197 record. Since taking over as coach three years ago, Adam Gase is 21-21.

Their problems are many. One of the biggest is that they’ve been without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has missed the past five games with an injury to his throwing shoulder and seems likely to miss at least one more after the bye.

The Dolphins rank 28th in offense and 26th in defense. They’ve been outscored by 57 points and outgained by 787 yards, which is third-worst in the NFL. They’re on pace to allow the most yards in franchise history.

They also aren’t getting much love from their alumni. Consider this tweet from Hall of Fame fullback Larry Csonka: “These are tough times to be a Dolphin fan. Very frustrating. Shabby football.”

What’s ahead?

The schedule actually gives the Dolphins a bit of a break, because only two of their final six opponents (New England and Minnesota) have winning records.

But are they capable of taking advantage of it?

That would seem like a long shot, especially with Brock Osweiler at quarterback. In nine quarters, the Dolphins have failed to generate a touchdown. In the last three games, receiver Danny Amendola has thrown for a score, which is one more than Osweiler has managed.

Buffalo Bills

Where they are

Their 41-10 pounding of the Jets on Nov. 11 was one of their most impressive and complete victories in a long time. It probably had as much to do with the sad state of affairs with the Jets as anything else, but it did end a four-game losing streak and gave the Bills a much-needed boost of confidence entering the bye.

Besides the fact the Jets are terrible, another complicating factor in trying to determine whether the win can provide any traction is the fact Matt Barkley was at quarterback. Injuries and Nathan Peterman’s incompetence forced the Bills to play Barkley less than two weeks after signing him. Given that and the fact the start was Barkley’s first since Jan. 1, 2017, it worked out remarkably well.

However, at 3-7, the Bills don’t appear to be putting a push for an improbable playoff appearance ahead of the development of rookie quarterback Josh Allen, who coach Sean McDermott said would return to the No. 1 role once he has recovered from his elbow sprain. For the seventh overall pick of the draft, that could be as soon as this Sunday’s game against Jacksonville.

Whether the offense that clicked so well in large part because of Barkley’s veteran presence will do the same with Allen at the controls remains to be seen. So, too, does Barkley’s effectiveness now that there’s more recent game video available for opponents to study.

What’s ahead?

Of the Bills’ remaining games, only one is against a team with a winning record, the Patriots. Counting the Pats, the Bills face four divisional opponents, including two games against the Dolphins (at Miami on Dec. 2 and at home on Dec. 30) and a home encounter with the Jets (Dec. 9).

Having four games at home should also enhance the Bills’ chances of a strong finish, although that would figure to do little more than lower their draft position.

New York Jets

Where they are

After his team’s pathetic showing against the Bills to fall to 3-7, there was rampant speculation Todd Bowles’ firing was imminent. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport reports Bowles is expected to be safe through the balance of the schedule, but faces “an uphill battle” to keep his job.

Given the importance of developing rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, the third overall pick of the draft, the Jets would seem to want get away from the defensive roots Bowles had and go with an offensive-minded replacement.

Regardless, it has been pretty much all downhill since Bowles’ first season, when Ryan Fitzpatrick had one of his “Fitzmagic” seasons to help get them to 10-6. In the past two-plus years, the Jets are 13-29. They’ve consistently been near the bottom of the NFL in offense and defense.

What’s ahead?

More misery, it would seem.

They have a tough finish to the season, with a pair of games against the Patriots, road clashes with the Titans and Bills, and home games against the Houston Texans and Green Bay Packers.

If Bowles hasn’t already begun packing up his office, he probably should consider doing so fairly soon.

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