D.A.: Patriots Fans Hate Hearing About AFC East, But It's Just The Facts

The AFC East is bad, it's been bad for a long time, and it's absolutely helped the Patriots win Super Bowls, D.A. says

Damon Amendolara
December 06, 2018 - 2:27 pm

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The Patriots are once again zooming down the home stretch of the season, and the only thing that stands between them and another playoff bye is three games vs. the dregs of the AFC East. Must be nice. New England, at a time of the year when everyone is banged up, emotionally taxed, and feeling the effects of a long season, get three of their final four weeks against the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets. 

This is in no way the Patriots fault. They don't make the schedule. They're under no responsibility to make sure their divisional rivals draft the right quarterback or hire a solid coach. New England can only be asked to play the team they're slotted against every week. It just so happens every season, for 18 long, painful years in South Florida, and upstate and downstate New York, those opponents have been a clown show, a circus of never-ending bozos and walkovers. It is the craziest, most inexplicable gift in NFL history. 

Since Tom Brady took over the reigns in '01, the list of starting quarterbacks the Pats have faced in the division is comical. The names are too pathetic and humiliating to list here entirely, but the best opposing signal-callers the Pats have faced are erratic Ryan Tannehill, (a very old) Vinny Testeverde and middling Jay Fiedler. We're not talking about a small snapshot of three other teams scrambling for a few years. This is nearly two decades of shocking ineptitude. The Patriots have been granted six light scrimmages (almost 40% of the schedule) during the regular season every year, for 18 years. Again, this is not their fault. It is just reality.  

Perhaps the AFC East isn't so unique here, right? Sure would be nice to face the Browns or Lions twice a year. Other divisions have some bad quarterbacks too. Sorry, nothing is as close to the slop the AFC East has pushed out there. 

Since '01, every division in football has employed at least one Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. 

AFC East: Brady
AFC North: Ben Roethlisberger
AFC South: Peyton Manning
AFC West: Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning
NFC East: Eli Manning
NFC North: Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers
NFC South: Drew Brees
NFC West: Kurt Warner

While there's no guarantee all these players get into Canton (I'm skeptical of Eli and Rivers' resumes), they will all get serious consideration. The Pats have conveniently avoided all of the other Canton quarterbacks in their division for the last two decades, but so has Big Ben, Brees and Eli right? Well, yes. But the Steelers have faced a Super Bowl MVP in Joe Flacco for a decade. The Giants were haunted by the Eagles and six-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb (who went to five NFC title games). The Saints have had to deal with two quarterbacks who have won MVP awards and been to the Super Bowl, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan. The Pats have faced off against... Chad Pennington? 

It's not just that the AFC East hasn't had any other great quarterbacks, it's that they haven't even had very good ones. It's been a minefield of disastrous decisions. The Bills, Dolphins and Jets all could've taken Brees in the '00 Draft. In the Great QB Class of '04, the Steelers, Chargers, Giants all found stars. The Bills took J.P. Losman in the first round that year. The Dolphins doubled down and opted for Daunte Culpepper over Brees a few years later in free agency. In '05, the Dolphins selected Ronnie Brown, and the Bills traded out of the first round altogether, as Aaron Rodgers was taken 25th overall. The Jets spent the No. 6 pick on Mark Sanchez a few years later. Buffalo took E.J. Manuel 16th overall. The parade of whiffs is tragically hilarious. 

But every team has some draft pick misses, right? Let's take it a step further. Forget guys going to Canton one day, how about mere Pro Bowlers? Let's take a look at the AFC since Brady took over in '01. Eliminate all greats from the list above, and let's look at good, but not great signal-callers. Since then the AFC West has 16 Pro Bowl appearances by quarterbacks aside from Brees, Rivers and Manning. Let's take out Peyton from the Colts, and the AFC South has 11. Without Big Ben, the AFC North takes home 7. The AFC East? A mere 3. 

This is insane. In 18 years, aside from Brady, there's been three Pro Bowl seasons from an AFC East QB.

So let's frame that appropriately. In 18 years since Brady became the starting quarterback, the only Pro Bowl seasons by an AFC quarterback are a final swan song for Drew Bledsoe in Buffalo ('03), a creaky Brett Favre with the Jets in '08, and Tyrod Taylor for the Bills as an alternate's alternate. In this time, Rich Gannon made three Pro Bowls, so did Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Derek Carr, Andy Dalton and Steve McNair. Trent Green, Carson Palmer, Vince Young (!), Matt Schaub, and Trent Green made two. And Kordell Stewart, Derek Anderson, Kerry Collins, David Garrard, Matt Cassell (in Kansas City), Brian Griese, Elvis Grbac, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler even got a nod in the AFC. 

It is one of the most inconceivable rips in the NFL's cosmic stitching. How could three different organizations, with multiple GMs, and innumerable head coaches, all continually strike out so dramatically for twenty years on finding a somewhat decent quarterback? Every time I bring this up, inevitably Patriots fans throw rotten fruit at my Twitter avatar. 

Actual tweets:

"My IQ dropped 100 points reading this." 
"Watch some games you fraud. They keep beating everyone else." 
"You're an absolute clown." 
"STFU you ***face." 
"Here you go idiot, they also play a first place schedule every year." 
"Your pathetic hate for the Patriots makes you sound like a whiny baby." 
"Yet again, it's not their fault that the three other teams over the least 19 years can't draft, develop, sign, bring in other personnel to help them compete, Sorry."
"What about the Niners of the '80s? Their division stunk too!" 

And those are just the printable ones. I'd like to think I had a somewhat popular radio show in Boston for four years on the flagship home of the Patriots. So I don't think it's a city that hates me unconditionally. My wife is from New England, and I have family in Rhode Island (huge Pats fans). But I've discussed this on the air in New England, and continue to do so. At every juncture I'm met with the same defiant Patriots fan venom. 

So let's debunk a couple of myths. First, the "first-place schedule" argument is silly. In '02, the league switched to eight divisions, and in doing so every team's schedule has almost identical opponents within the division. So the AFC East all plays the same teams, except for two. The Pats, Dolphins, Bills and Jets each play four games against a common NFC division, and a common AFC division. Since '02, only two games of the 16 are based on where you finished the year prior. 

Also, I want to reiterate I do not fault the Patriots whatsoever. It is not their responsibility to make the Jets, Bills and Dolphins better. But it is their reality. The jabs at other dynasty's divisions only makes my point. Those teams were assisted in their greatness by bad divisions, too. But let's back off the Niners in the '80s a bit. Simply because the Rams were superior back then to any of the AFC East garbage. L.A. made two NFC title games, went to the playoffs six of seven years, and had one of the greatest RBs ever to play. The AFC East had Sanchez and a two-year run by the Jets (who beat the Patriots in the playoffs). 

To insist the division hasn't benefited them is in insincere. I understand why this is difficult for Pats fans. It compromises the "greatness" of the team's incredible success. No fan wants to see their team's accomplishments diminished, and New Englanders have fought the barbs of SpyGate, DelfateGate and other accusations of bending the rules forever. It gets old having everyone spit on your trophies. They are conditioned to fight for the cause, and I don't blame them. But we can all agree on this: The AFC East has allowed the Patriots a relatively easy division title, and home playoff game nearly every year for two decades, which is a nice place to start to any Super Bowl run. 

But there are other cold, hard truths that are harder to swallow. The benefit of the AFC East is also apparent in the rest of the team's success in the regular season. The favorite ammunition against this argument is the Patriots' win percentage against all other divisions. The excellent Patriots scribe Tom E. Curran noted after the win Sunday against the Vikings, "New England is 51-16 against the NFC. That’s a .761 winning percentage. Not as high as the Patriots' winning percentage in their division (.797). But that .797 isn’t as high as the Patriots' winning percentage when playing teams from the AFC North (.833), the AFC South (.818), the NFC East (.816) or the NFC North (.850)." Brady himself has a lesser percentage against the AFC West (.642) and NFC West (.643), but still fantastic. Curran and I debated this in a spirited and excellent segment on my show

Ah ha! See, D.A.! The Pats are actually better against some other divisions than the AFC East! Which is a nice safe zone for Pats defenders. But obviously playing chumps six times assists in the other ten games. The ancillary benefits of not having to be as crisp, focused, nor healthy, and still getting four, five or six wins a year in those contests are enormous. Let's create a spectrum of best case scenario each week to worst case. From the left you would get BYE week, last place team, .500 team, playoff team, and on the far right, Super Bowl champ. If you could choose six opponents from any of those boxes, wouldn't you take six last place teams with awful quarterbacks, unstable rosters, and buffoonish head coaches? Would that help you play better against the other 10 opponents? Well, that's the Patriots 18-year history. Forty percent of the schedule is a breather, which is like knowing two nights every work week you'll get 9 hours sleep. That'll help you be pretty productive the rest of the week. 

The season is a beast. Obviously, playing even a last-place squad is more taxing than a week off. So it's not fair to say the Pats have 7 off weeks. But let's inch a little further down the scale. Isn't competing against the expansion Bucs of '76 a half dozen times going to be easier on your roster than taking on the '85 Bears six times? These are obviously extremes, but only to make a point. The Bills aren't the expansion Bucs (although they're terrible). And no modern team plays meat-grinder football like those Bears. But would the Ravens rather play four games against the Steelers and Bengals annually, or take the Dolphins and Jets? Would the Chiefs opt for the Broncos and Chargers, or the Jets and Bills? The Patriots are never gasping for air because of a brutal schedule. New England gets a very comforting six games a year where the games may be close, but it's only because the Pats can afford to play at less than their potential, still walk out with a win, and avoid all the trappings of losing streaks. 

I went back and crunched the numbers on the Pats against all those HOF quarterbacks listed earlier. They are a terrific 28-15 (.650 win percentage). The Pats are consistently very good against everyone, and that should be recognized. I'm not arguing the Pats are a bad team that lucks into the playoffs and 8 Super Bowls. I'm saying the gift of a terrible division has helped their dynasty. This .650 is almost 150 points below their record in the AFC East. That's significant. Now to be clear, these are the very best QBs of their generation and the Pats still win 65% of the time. But again, none of this happens in a vacuum. Everything is sewn together. By playing six cupcakes a year, it allows a better effort against everyone else, and facing the best happens so rarely for New England because of a bad division. The Pats have only played in 43 games over 18 years against that level of QB competition, an average of 2.4 games per year. Two of the Patriots' AFC equals over the last 20 years have been the Ravens and Broncos. Those two games are built in every year for Baltimore and Denver with Big Ben and Rivers, before even facing any other great QB. 

There is always a negative effect from playing high-level competition. Like any team, the Patriots expend more energy playing against the elite, and thus have less to give the following week. I went back and crunched the numbers on the weeks after those games against HOF quarterbacks, and the Pats went 30-12 (.714). They had a BYE week after one game. Again, this is an excellent win percentage. But it is still more than 80 points lower than their rate of success against the AFC East. 

So what we see here is the Patriots have been overall solid against everyone, but they are not nearly as good vs. the elite QBs of the league and the weeks following those games. And guess what? With the murderer's row of trash the AFC East has trotted out for 18 years, the Pats have 6 weeks which are never against a HOF quarterback, and then 6 weeks following those division games where they could be (but aren't) taxed. That's 12 of 16 weeks for nearly two decades where they get to avoid two of the downturns in their outstanding success rate. 

Are the Patriots historically great? Of course. This is not to argue they're frauds. They are not. To cite other dynasty's poor divisions only reiterates the point: Great teams can often grow into monsters with a steady diet of terrible opponents, and set themselves up for a more comfortable postseason road. The Patriots have never been to a Super Bowl during this era having played Wild Card weekend, and haven't won a road playoff game in 12 years (admittedly, they're only 0-2 in that time). How do you avoid the pitfalls of a postseason grind? Fatten up on chumps in the division, and be better served to beat the handful of elite teams you have to face. This article is only to underscore the Patriots have undoubtedly benefited from the nightmare of the Jets, Dolphins and Bills for nearly two decades. The AFC East has been mind-numbingly bad in its March of the Morons, and that has assisted in the extended run of success. To argue otherwise is ignoring the facts. 

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.