NEW YORK (AP) — The only real question in the AFC East is how early in the season the New England Patriots will clinch the division.
Bill Belichick’s bunch is again the clear choice, even with Tom Brady losing favorite receiver Julian Edelman for the season with a knee injury.
New England has won the AFC East eight straight years, and 13 of the last 14 — with the only stumble coming in 2008, when Brady tore knee ligaments in the season opener.
But don’t think for a second the defending Super Bowl champions are taking anything for granted, even with the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets entering the season with major flaws.
“We start off every year kind of the same and Bill will put us through the wringer and have all different things that we need to do as a team and build upon,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Since I’ve been here, I would say that’s one thing we’ve never really had to struggle with coming from him.”
The loss of Edelman, who has caught 356 passes over the last four years, will certainly hurt the Patriots’ high-powered offense. But New England has enough talented pass catchers to replace him with tight end Rob Gronkowski healthy again and newcomer Brandin Cooks joining Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell in the receiving corps.
“The team will have to move on and we’ll have to compete in this season without him,” Belichick said of Edelman. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is, so we’ll have to figure that out.”
Here are a few things to know about the AFC East:
THIS IS 40: Brady remains the constant for the Patriots, and he has thrived despite an always-changing cast of characters on the roster.
But he’s now a year older, having turned 40 earlier this month . And it will be intriguing to see if Brady can keep up his prolific production — and do so without Edelman. He’s feeling good, though, and that’s a good sign for New England. And a bad one for opponents, who have to wonder if he’ll ever slow down.
“I feel like my routine is better than it’s ever been,” Brady said. “When you’re younger, you don’t know what to do. After 17 years, going into my 18th year, I know what to do. I know how to prepare. I’m never sore. I could practice every day. I could practice twice a day if they’d let us do that, but that’s not the way it goes anymore. It’s just fun being out here competing.”
CUTLER’S COMEBACK: Jay Cutler retired after last season and was set to be an analyst for Fox’s NFL broadcasts. But Ryan Tannehill was lost for the season and Cutler stepped out of the booth and back into the huddle to be Miami’s quarterback .
The move made lots of sense for the Dolphins, who are hoping Cutler will have the same kind of success as in 2015 when Miami coach Adam Gase was Chicago’s offensive coordinator. Cutler’s familiarity with Gase and the Dolphins’ playbook, along with a budding star in wide receiver DeVante Parker, could make for a seamless transition.
“He’s excited to get back in the building with Gase,” guard Jermon Bushrod said. “He wasn’t ready to fully hang it up yet and I feel him. I understand where he’s coming from. The broadcasting thing would have been a cool gig for him, but he still has some football left.”
BUFFALO STANCE: The Bills overhauled their roster this offseason with new general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott beginning a process they hope ends the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought. That likely won’t happen this year with the trades of top receiver Sammy Watkins (to the Rams) and starting cornerback Ronald Darby (to the Eagles) on the same day earlier this month a sure sign the focus is on the future.
Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is back, but his status beyond this season is uncertain, and he sustained a concussion last weekend. The Bills added Jordan Matthews in the Darby trade, but of the eight players who caught a TD pass last year, only two return: tight end Charles Clay, with four, and running back LeSean McCoy, with one.
“We have to put a positive line,” Taylor said. “It’s a win-now league. And as a team, we have to refocus, do whatever it takes to win games.”
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?: Much like the Bills, the Jets are in full rebuilding mode after general manager Mike Maccagnan cleared out several big names with big contracts: Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris.
What’s left for coach Todd Bowles’ team is a roster filled with fresh faces and inexperience — and that has some wondering if the Jets will even win a game this season.
Their dismal quarterback situation, with 38-year-old Josh McCown expected to start over youngsters Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, has only added to the grim projections.
“One thing I’ve been sticking to and saying to a lot of people here and a lot of people who ask me about it, you know, I’m trusting the process,” said Pro Bowl defensive end Leonard Williams. “I’m trying to focus on the guys that we have here and not the guys that we don’t.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Patriots, Dolphins, Bills, Jets.
AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, John Wawrow and Steven Wine contributed.