At the halfway point of the 2020 NFL season, the AFC East looks a little different than years past.
Tom Brady is nowhere to be found, as he instead leads the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the top spot in the NFC South standings. Meanwhile, his former team up in Foxborough isn’t leading its own division, as the new-look New England Patriots struggle to put the pieces together through seven games.
The Miami Dolphins have themselves a well-rounded defense and are experimenting with rookie Tua Tagovailoa as their starting quarterback, and find themselves two games up on New England in the standings despite a head-to-head loss in Week 1.
And the New York Jets, well… they’re in good positioning for a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But, one thing is business as usual when discussing the AFC East in 2020: It’s top-heavy. However, it’s not the same heavyweight powering through opponents at the top of the standings.
In 2020, the division’s top contender isn’t Bill Belichick’s Patriots. It’s Sean McDermott’s Buffalo Bills.
Clocking in with a 6-2 record through the first half of the 2020 regular season, the Bills have emerged as a true threat in both the divisional standings, as well as the AFC playoff picture as a whole.
Quarterback Josh Allen looked like an MVP candidate through the first quarter of the season, and wide receiver Stefon Diggs is proving to be a worthwhile addition to the team’s passing game.
The team as a whole has come up big in close games, with five of its six wins coming in one-possession games, and four of them coming against divisional rivals.
While all of that is impressive, both the coaching staff and players on the roster have remained calm, cool and collected through it all. They may be on top of the standings, but know that things could change in an instant in a division that they haven’t won since 1995.
“We’re focused on one game right now,” McDermott said in late October ahead of the team’s game against the Patriots. “You’ve got to prove yourself every week in the NFL.”
Consistency is key in any sport, but especially as it relates to football. Since 2000, some of the Bills’ divisional rivals haven’t been able to achieve that trait, while one has been the image you see when you look up the term in the dictionary.
Since 2000, the Dolphins have made the playoffs in just four seasons, while the Jets have qualified in six.
In that same span, the Patriots have missed the playoffs just three times, with six Super Bowl wins and nine Super Bowl appearances to show for it all.
Both the Dolphins and Jets have combined for just three AFC East titles since 2000, with the Patriots taking the division each of the other 17 seasons.
The Bills, on the other hand, have been consistent for all of the wrong reasons. One of the unluckiest franchises in sports history, the team lost four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s, and have played in just two playoff games since 2000.
So, what’s different in 2020? What changed in order to shift the Bills from an annual pretender into a true contender in the AFC?
Is it simply a result of Tom Brady’s absence? Is it related to the impact of COVID-19 in 2020? Is it just Josh Allen’s continued maturity, and the talented additions to the offense?
It may not be that simple, but the Bills don’t need a specific answer to know that something special is brewing.
The showcase of that “something special” came in Week 8 of the 2020 regular season, as McDermott’s Bills took down Bill Belichick’s Patriots, with many labeling the game as a potential “changing of the guard.”
Running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss ran right through the Patriots’ defense, Allen played relatively mistake-free football under center despite the conditions, and the Bills defense stood tall against Cam Newton’s best efforts to pull off a comeback late in the fourth quarter.
A forced fumble with less than a minute to go sealed the deal for the Bills, giving them a 24-21 victory to solidify their spot as the AFC East’s top dog.
“Yeah, it gets me emotional,” McDermott told reporters after the game. “All week long we try to go through it, one day at a time, process, process, process, but we know. We know what this game means to our fanbase, just really special.”
Despite the “focused on one game” mentality that he had preached a few days before the game, McDermott did allow himself and the team to enjoy the moment, and the potential realization that momentum may have completely shifted in their favor in the AFC East.
“A lot of work has gone into this,” McDermott said. “These wins every week don’t come easy. That’s a good football team coached by one of the best ever, if not the best ever.”
And, while there is a lot of youth on both sides of the ball, many members of the Bills roster know about the history in the AFC East. Players know about the Patriots’ success, and the countless attempts from the division’s other three teams to be the one that takes down the Bill Belichick-led dynasty, once and for all.
So, when discussing what has changed in the past few years to make the Bills a true contender in both the division and conference, it may be just that: Knowing what has happened before, and the consistent work that needs to be put in to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We understood what the Patriots have meant to this division for a long time,” Allen said after the game. “The thing is we’re going to play them again, we’re going to see them again. And we got to prepare when we get there and be ready to play them. That’s a really good football team that we just played.”
“Just knowing the history that these guys have been through with this team, knowing what the Patriots have been able to do in this conference and things like that,” Moss, a 22-year-old rookie, said. “You factor in the entire long COVID year, and everything like that, that we’ve all sacrificed to be here, and to finally get one stepping stone closer to one thing that we all want, which is the AFC East championship, it’s really big. The vibe in this locker room right now is unmatched.”
Everyone wonders every year whether the Patriots are done, and whether there will finally be a new face atop the AFC East when the regular season is finished.
But, there always seemed to be doubt about whether or not it would actually happen, and it would all simply shift into wondering when the Patriots would turn it around and emerge back at the top.
In this case, it does feel different. The Patriots appear to be dead in the water, with no true threats on either side of the ball and no solutions on the way in the immediate future.
On the other side, it feels different for the Bills, as well. There’s a mix of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance to provide a spark and burst of energy in the locker room.
There’s a 26-year-old veteran like Stefon Diggs looking to prove that he is one of the best wide receivers in the league, and a 22-year-old like Zack Moss hoping to make an impact in his rookie season.
Then, there’s the 24-year-old Josh Allen, leading the way under center as the perfect mesh of experience and exuberance, and serving as the epitome of the Bills’ current state.
So, as the 2020 regular season rolls on, it seems that the Bills are the clear frontrunner to win the AFC East for the first time since 1995, when Allen was a few months away from being born.
And, with loads of young talent, a solid foundation in the locker room, and the right mentality being preached by coaches and players alike, it makes sense to believe that the AFC East will be the Bills’ division for years to come.