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AFC East 2021 NFL Preview: Why Bills remain team to beat for division

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 9.

Today, we look at the AFC East. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021 standings.)

BUFFALO BILLS

2020 record: 13-3, crowned division champs; lost to Chiefs in AFC Championship game.

Roster additions: QB Mitchell Trubisky, WR Emmanuel Sanders, RB Matt Breida, DE Greg Rousseau (drafted 30th overall)

Roster subtractions: WR John Brown, WR Andre Roberts, TE Tyler Kroft, DE Trent Murphy, CB Josh Norman, CB E.J. Gaines

The good news: Last year, the Bills made the most of their opportunity to win the club’s first division title since 1995 and then pulled off impressive victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs.

What should be encouraging for Bills Mafia is knowing that management kept a majority of the roster intact this past off-season and even secured a long-term deal with franchise quarterback Josh Allen. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be back in the same position this season. Hopefully, being one game away from the Super Bowl last winter has them focused and ready to take the next step.

The bad news: The Bills’ run game remains a question mark this season, clearly preferring to keep the ball in Allen’s hands as much as they can. Finding a way to make Devin Singletary and Zack Moss more productive would open up more plays for Allen, as the opposing defence would have to respect the run.

Another area the Bills will need to see improvement in 2021 is the pass rush. They drafted Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr. with their first two picks last spring in an attempt to bolster the defence’s ability to pressure opposing QBs.

2021 prediction: 13-4, win second straight division title.

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

2020 record: 7-9, third in AFC East; missed playoffs for first time since 2008.

Roster additions: QB Mac Jones (drafted 15th overall), WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, TE Hunter Henry, TE Jonnu Smith, OT Trent Brown, C David Andrews, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Davon Godchaux

Roster subtractions: QB Cam Newton, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Julian Edelman (retired), CB Jason McCourty, G Joe Thuney, S Patrick Chung (retired), OT Marcus Cannon

The good news: The first season without Tom Brady might not have gone as planned, but the Patriots seem determined to put 2020 behind them.

Bill Belichick was among the most active spenders in free agency last spring, shopping for improvements to the offensive line, adding weapons on offence and shoring up the team’s depth on defence. In naming Jones the starting quarterback after the surprising release of Newton, the Patriots clearly feel like the rookie can run the traditional offence that made this team a consistent contender the past two decades.

Jones has a strong support system around him in New England, and while it might take some time for the rookie to hit his stride, he’s already got more capable weapons — Agholor, Smith and Henry — than Newton did during his year-long stay.

The bad news: Even with the long list of roster additions, New England doesn’t have the most exciting roster on paper. Belichick definitely has his work cut out for him — then again, it’s always tough to bet against the Patriots. They’ll have to hope Jones can push them into contention for a wild-card spot in the AFC.

2021 prediction: 9-8, battling for one of three wild-card spots.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS

2020 record: 10-6, second in AFC East; missed playoffs for fourth consecutive season.

Roster additions: QB Jacoby Brissett, WR Jaylen Waddle (drafted sixth overall), WR Will Fuller, CB Jason McCourty, DT Adam Butler

Roster subtractions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Isaiah Ford, DE Shaq Lawson, LB Kyle Van Noy, C Ted Karras

The good news: It was disappointing to see the Dolphins’ season end with a blowout loss to the Bills in week 17, but it should serve as a lesson of what is required in order to take the next step. The defence was a bright spot for Miami in 2020 with Xavien Howard recording 10 interceptions as the unit finished with the sixth-lowest average points allowed, with room to grow still.

While there have been reports of Miami’s potential interest in Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, that’s a complicated issue with far more questions than answers right now considering the serious allegations against him. It’s second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa who is poised to lead the team as they try to build off an improved 2020 season.

The bad news: The Patriots found a way to improve this off-season, and with quarterback questions still looming in Miami – mainly, is Tagovailoa the right QB to lead this team? – they could wind up getting leapfrogged by their divisional rival. The team is no doubt hoping the additions of Fuller and Waddle can help build upon last year’s average of 25.3 points per game.

2021 prediction: 8-9, miss playoffs.

NEW YORK JETS

2020 record: 2-14, fourth in AFC East; missed playoffs (and first overall pick)

Roster additions: Head coach Robert Saleh, QB Zach Wilson (drafted second overall), DE Shaq Lawson, WR Corey Davis, WR Keelan Cole, RB Tevin Coleman, DE Carl Lawson, DT Sheldon Rankins, CJ Mosley (opted out of 2020 season)

Roster subtractions: QB Sam Darnold, RB Frank Gore, WR Breshad Perriman, LB Jordan Jenkins, DL Henry Anderson

The good news: The Adam Gase era came to a much-needed end — and, really, there is nothing the Jets will miss about it. Under Gase, the 2020 Jets scored the fewest points in the league (15.2 per game) and yet somehow managed to win two games as they and the Jacksonville Jaguars went toe-to-toe for the chance to draft quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

While the Jets didn’t land that top pick, they believe they have their franchise quarterback in Wilson.

This is a team that is still rebuilding, but made it a point to bring in some offensive weapons for Wilson, like Davis and Coleman. It’s hard to see this offence not taking a step forward after a dreadful 2020.

The bad news: Saleh, a defence-first coach, already lost a strong weapon in the recently signed Carl Lawson (Achilles). Trading for Shaq Lawson bolsters the pass rush, but Saleh has his work cut out for him as he tries to put his stamp on this team.

2021 prediction: 5-12 — and a step in the right direction.

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