New England has captured the AFC East crown in 13 of 15 years since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback, including every year since 2009. It's been a run of unparalleled divisional dominance made possible by the incredible staying power of Bill Belichick, forever in a league of his own at head coach, and Tom Brady, a perfect quarterback who is 38 going on 25.
It's difficult to build a compelling case -- barring a reinstatement of Brady's Deflategate suspension -- that this is the year the Pats finally falter. The Jets, New England's closest divisional competitor in 2015, have serious cap issues and don't even know who's playing quarterback. Rex Ryan has a borderline obsession with overtaking Belichick, but the Bills don't appear much different than the team that disappointed at 8-8 last season. The Dolphins are awash in mediocrity on both sides of the ball.
Does that mean nobody has a chance to catch the Pats? There's always a chance, but a study of the rosters and coaching staff tell us a high wall will continue to separate the king from the uprising.
1. New England Patriots
Why they remain the team to beat: Did the rich get richer in the AFC East this season?
The addition of Martellus Bennett gives Brady another towering end-zone target and allows offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to scheme with two playmaking tight ends for the first time since Aaron Hernandez was a free man. Chris Hogan could be the latest Belichick reclamation project to go to the Pro Bowl. Health and some better luck should be enough to ease the offensive line woes of a year ago. Who's running the football here? The Pats always seem to figure it out.
Key arrivals: TE Martellus Bennett, WR Chris Hogan, DT Terrance Knighton, DE Chris Long, ILB Shea McClellin, WR Nate Washington, RB Donald Brown.
Key departures: DE Chandler Jones, DE Akiem Hicks, WR Brandon LaFell, SS Tavon Wilson, TE Scott Chandler, RB LeGarrette Blount.
»*Repeat after me: Protect the QB:* The Pats didn't have good depth on their offensive line last season, and Brady paid for it with a historic pounding against the Broncos. New England added draft bust Jonathan Cooper in the Chandler Jones trade, but more useful pieces are needed.
»*Find some fresh legs:* The decision to let LeGarrette Blount go wasn't exactly head-scratching, but the Patriots can do better than Donald Brown as a replacement. Dion Lewis is a tremendous "satellite" back, but he's also coming back from a torn ACL. This feels like an obvious draft need. Could Pats flirt with Arian Foster?
»*"Air" on the side of caution:* It seems insane, but Deflategate is still hanging over the franchise. If Brady's ban resurfaces, the Pats will need to bring in a veteran quarterback to play behind Jimmy Garoppolo. Adding a third QB -- Brady is almost 40, after all -- might not be a bad idea in general.
2. New York Jets
So you wanna be a GM? Mike Maccagnan had the Midas touch in his first year as the Jets' general manager, earning accolades for an offseason of spending and deft trading that helped make the Jets relevant again. But the job has gotten more difficult in Year 2. Ryan Fitzpatrick is in a protracted stand-off with the team, the two sides far apart on a new deal. And then there's Muhammad Wilkerson, the team's best defensive talent, but also a player who might not make financial sense in the long-term for a franchise with plenty of defensive line depth.
Will Fitzpatrick sign elsewhere? Will Wilkerson get traded? Until we have those answers, it's hard to make sense of what the Jets will or will not be in 2016.
Key arrivals: MLB Bruce Carter, OT Ryan Clady, RB Matt Forte, DE Jarvis Jenkins, NT Steve McLendon, RB Khiry Robinson.
Key departures: ILB Demario Davis, NT Damon Harrison, RB Chris Ivory, WR Jeremy Kerley, RB Stevan Ridley, OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
»*Is there a Plan B at QB?* Turning back to Geno Smith is not the answer and we continue to hear Bryce Petty needs another year of seasoning. Brian Hoyer makes some sense, but you know what makes a lot more? Finding a way to make it work with Fitzpatrick.
»*Find a QB hunter:* You knew the Jets had a glaring need at outside linebacker last season when Sheldon Richardson -- all 294 pounds of him -- was playing the position for important stretches late last season. Lorenzo Mauldin showed some promise down the stretch, but the Jets need more help. They might look for it at the top of their draft board.
3. Buffalo Bills
No more excuses for Rex: The Bills were one of the AFC's biggest disappointments last season. Their 8-8 record was another black mark on the resume for Rex Ryan, who might need GPS to get back to the playoffs at this point.
The good news? For the first time in forever, the Bills have no question about their opening day quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is locked in as QB1, even if his team won't return his agent's calls. It's been a quiet offseason for Buffalo, which perhaps makes sense after the fireworks that came with Ryan's arrivals. It's a playoff-or-bust type of year for a team that hasn't qualified for the postseason competition in this century.
Key players re-signed: T Cordy Glenn (franchised), WR Leonard Hankerson, G Richie Incognito, OT Jordan Mills.
Key departures: OLB Nigel Bradham, WR Chris Hogan, CB Leodis McKelvin, G Kraig Urbik, DE Mario Williams.
»*Plan for Percy:*Percy Harvinstill wants to play and the Bills seem open to bringing back the talented but brittle wide receiver. It's easy to forget now, but Harvin was Buffalo's best wide receiver -- Sammy Watkins included -- before his hip problems resurfaced by October. Harvin's return makes sense for Buffalo at the right price.
»*The Bills are too thin:* Ryan was frank in an interview with NFL Network after the season, pointing out that the Bills "don't have a whole lot of depth right now." This is a huge draft for general manager Doug Whaley. The most pressing needs can be found at linebacker and defensive line following the departures of Nigel Bradham and Mario Williams.
»*Shady insurance?* Are the Bills happy with their depth at running back? LeSean McCoy escaped criminal charges connected to his alleged role in a bar fight, but he might still face discipline under the NFL's personal conduct policy.
4. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can do what Joe Philbin and Dan Campbell could not last year: Find a way to turn Miami's solid collection of talent into winners. Gase's biggest challenge will be goosing an offense that finished 26th in football last season. Relatedly, this could be a make-or-break season for Ryan Tannehill, who enters the season as the undisputed starting quarterback for perhaps the last time.
The Dolphins still see themselves as contenders, evident in their decision to sign veteran pass-rusher Mario Williams. But this is also a team that lost some considerable talent in free agency, and Mike Tannenbaum has work to do in the draft.
Key players re-signed: LB James-Michael Johnson, G Jacques McClendon, QB Matt Moore, LB Spencer Paysinger, TE Jake Stoneburner.
Key arrivals: SS Isa Abdul-Quddus, DE Andre Branch, OT Jermon Bushrod, G Kraig Urbik, DE Mario Williams, CB Byron Maxwell.
Key departures: CB Brent Grimes, WR Rishard Matthews, RB Lamar Miller, DE Derrick Shelby, DE Olivier Vernon.
»*Does anybody want to play running back for the Dolphins?* The team showed interest in retaining Lamar Miller, but he bolted to Houston. The team pursued C.J. Anderson and Chris Johnson, and were turned away both times. Arian Foster visited with the team last week and represents an intriguing option. The draft might be the smartest route.
»*The Maxwell gamble:* Brent (and Miko) Grimes are no longer in the picture, but Byron Maxwell (acquired in a trade with the Eagles) represents a fairly huge risk as the team's No. 1 corner. Perhaps Maxwell bounces back from his lost season under Chip Kelly, but the Dolphins could use some fresh options. This is a huge draft for Mr. T.
»*Linebacker help wanted:* The Dolphins hope they upgraded at middle linebacker by trading for Kiko Alonso, but is Alonso really an upgrade on Kelvin Sheppard? Alonso's knee remained an issue in his one season in Philadelphia and some time has passed since his breakthrough season with the Bills in 2013. For that reason and others, linebacker is a position of need in the draft.