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AFC East torch up for grabs with Patriots sputtering

Late last week, Bill Belichick gave an unusual interview to his former assistant coach, Charlie Weis, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. It was unusual in its candor and unusual in that it sounded as if Belichick was offering up a series of excuses -- tight salary cap, opt-outs, COVID-19 disruption -- for a New England Patriots season that has devolved to the point where the division torch is not being passed by the Patriots so much as it is being dropped and kicked into the gutter like a discarded soda can.

Whatever the reason -- the lack of quality skill-position targets that so frustrated Tom Brady last season is high on the list and the absence of Brady himself is paramount -- the AFC East is finally emerging from its two-decades-long Patriots-induced slumber. New England has won the division 11 straight years, but Buffalo and Miami are now in position to make the Pats afterthoughts. To be clear, no team in the division looks as dominant as the best of the Brady-led behemoths did, but then again, this version of New England bears very little resemblance to those teams, too. After losing to the Bills on Sunday in a game that featured the stop-and-start offense that has plagued them for the last month, the Patriots have dropped four games in a row for the first time since 2002, which just happens to be the last time they failed to make the playoffs with a healthy Brady. That leaves them at 2-5, four games behind the Bills in the win column and two games behind the Dolphins. The last time the Bills won the division was 1995; the Dolphins won it in 2008, when Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.

"Frustration level is definitely high," said Patriots running back Damien Harris, who rushed for 102 yards in the loss to Buffalo. "Moral victories mean nothing in this organization."

That's too bad, because New England could use a pick-me-up and the offense did show some life in the second half. But maybe that's the bad news, too: The Patriots looked better on Sunday than they did in losses to the Broncos (Week 6) and 49ers (Week 7), but they still lost. That's the kind of pain New England used to inflict on opponents. Now it is the Pats grasping for something to build on from the ashes of another game.

That the single best unit in the division this weekend might have been Miami's defense -- which made Tua Tagovailoa's debut a success by forcing two fumbles and two interceptions of his Rams counterpart, Jared Goff -- only amplifies the Patriots' issues. The Bills and Dolphins have improved -- in Miami's case, while still in the middle of a rebuild -- while New England is substantially worse, suffering from the accumulated losses of players who opted out of the season, like Dont'a Hightower, and, of course, the departure of the quarterback who annually papered over a whole lot of roster holes. There is distance now between the Bills and Dolphins and the Patriots. Just as daunting for the Pats: There is space between them and other conference contenders for three wild-card spots. There are 10 teams in the AFC with more wins than the Patriots, and two others also have two wins. Seven AFC teams will make the playoffs.

It is tempting, with the season near the halfway point, to assume the Patriots are dead and buried. That is folly. No coach is better at shape-shifting his team to suit its strengths than Belichick, and we have seen New England build in a second-half crescendo for years. But it is obvious that Belichick has little confidence in his offense right now -- the Patriots opted to kick a field goal on third-and-1 from the Bills' 15-yard line with 12 seconds remaining at the end of the first half, rather than take a shot at the end zone first. Belichick said after the game that he didn't take the chance because it was a "low-percentage play."

Maybe it is for this version of the Patriots. Perhaps someday we'll figure out what happened after Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19 and the team's schedule was scrambled to cause such an obvious regression from the first few weeks of the season. But New England has come out on the other side with no apparent expectation that Newton can accurately deliver a 15-yard pass and, even more obviously, no succession plan after Brady's departure. Belichick reiterated after Sunday's game that Newton is the starter, which is an indictment of backup Jarrett Stidham, who was thought to be the potential heir apparent. Luckily for the Patriots, they play the winless Jets next week (and in Week 17). Other than their matchups with the Jets, the only other remaining game the Patriots are likely to be fully expected to win is against the Texans (currently 1-6) in Week 11. Worse, in coming games against the Ravens, Cardinals, Chargers and Dolphins, the Pats will see up close what they are missing -- a team and roster on an upward trajectory.

The opportunity the rest of the division has waited for has finally arrived. The Bills got their second victory in a row, and their running game showed signs of life in doing it, although they are just the third team in NFL history to start a season 6-2 despite having a negative point differential. The Dolphins have won three in a row to leapfrog the Patriots, but Tagovailoa's shaky start (he lost a fumble, and completed just 12 passes for 93 yards) is likely to renew questions about whether Miami benched Ryan Fitzpatrick too soon.

"Thank God we've got a good defense," Tagovailoa said after Sunday's win.

The Bills cleared a mental hurdle with their defeat of the Patriots -- it was the first time Sean McDermott had beaten the Patriots as a head coach, Josh Allen's first victory versus New England as the quarterback and only the fourth Buffalo win over the Pats since 2010 -- and the relief was apparent in the smile on McDermott's face after the game.

"It gets me emotional," McDermott said, describing what beating the Patriots means to Bills fans, who have not been able to attend home games this season.

This is not really the moment for sentiment, especially for the Bills, who started 6-2 in 2019, too, before going 4-4 in the second half and losing in the Wild Card Round.

The Bills and Dolphins can see clearly what they have to do in the second half of this season. The AFC East window is finally wide open. And the Patriots are in the process of chucking that smoldering torch out of it.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @JudyBattista.

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