FOXBOROUGH — In the eloquent words of Jets coach Rex Ryan, New England has had a stranglehold on the AFC East for several years.
The Patriots have won the division for three straight, eight of the last nine, and nine out of the last 11 years.
But after New England lost in Seattle, and Miami, Buffalo, and the Jets all won their games last weekend, the teams are in a four-way tie in the division at 3-3. It is the first time since NFL realignment in 2002 that all of the teams in one division are tied for first in Week 6 or later.
Tom Brady has said more than once since the Seahawks game that the Patriots’ .500 mark isn’t a good record. That’s true for a team that hasn’t missed double-digit wins in nearly a decade.
But for the other AFC East teams, particularly the Bills and Dolphins, still being in the hunt for the title might change things a bit.
“I’m excited,” Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I think we’re in a good spot. Obviously I wish we could have won a few more games in the past few weeks, but we’re in a good spot.
“I think it’s in our hands now. It’s all on us if we want to go out and make a run at this thing or not. It’s all in our hands and up to us to make a play. At the end of the day, we have no one else to look at but ourselves, and it’s on us to get it done.”
Miami lost to the Jets and Arizona in Weeks 3 and 4 by a total of 6 points, so Tannehill can lament the same close losses that Brady can with New England.
The Dolphins are in their bye week, but will travel to MetLife Stadium to face the Jets after their break. First-year head coach Joe Philbin sees it as a measuring stick for his club.
“We’ve got 10 games to play,” said Philbin. “Kind of the fun part about where we’re at, to a certain degree, is we’ve got a big division road game. We’ve never had one before, so we’ve got to see how we respond and we’ve got to kind of take it one day at a time with where the program’s at right now.”
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also sees an opportunity.
“To be here and also have the other teams be 3-3 in the AFC East, everybody kind of knotted up — all of a sudden you start looking it at, and we have 10 games to go. We have a real shot at this thing,” he said. “We have to come out and play.”
Though Ryan frequently likes to declare his team as potential Super Bowl champions, he still handicaps the Patriots as the team to beat.
“The years I’ve been the head coach, obviously they’ve won our division, and to be quite honest, pretty handily,” he said. “So they’re the ones to beat. It goes through New England, without question. I’m sure that’s the goal not just of ours but of Miami as well.
“I think when you look at it, it’s good news/bad news. The good news is you’re tied for first. The bad news is you’re tied for last. But that’s kind of the NFL right now. I think the team that can stay consistent, stay the course, hopefully that’s us and we’ll find a way to get on top this year.”
Sunday’s game with New York is just the second division game of the season for New England. But division record, record in common games, and intraconference record are tiebreakers in determining playoff spots, so this game and every one going forward has heightened importance.
“It’s a 10-game schedule now,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “There’s nothing anybody can do about any of the games that have happened, us or any of our opponents or anybody else. It’s just about going forward.
“We have to try to do a good job this week and we’ll worry about next week, next week. Right now, we just have to do a good job getting ready for the Jets.”
Said Brady, “At this point and going forward, they’re all going to be important. The thing about football is that the next game is always more important than the previous game in the NFL. So a division opponent is critical. We’ve only played one of those games this year.
“We play a team that we know pretty well [in the Jets] that always gives us challenges defensively. They’re always a very good team. They’re very much a game-plan defense. They’re going to try to figure out what they need to do to stop us and we’ve got to figure out ways to move the ball and really put the ball in the end zone.
“I think we’ve done a good job moving the ball this year; it’s really just a matter of us getting the ball in the end zone and scoring points.”
The relative mediocrity in the AFC East underscores an issue this season throughout the entire conference: only two of 16 teams are currently above .500 — Houston and Baltimore.
The NFC has seven such teams, including three of the four from the West, which before the season was widely regarded as the weakest of the league’s eight divisions.
It also speaks yet again to the parity in the NFL, and the fact that things so often change from one season to the next when it comes to the standings.
As Philbin noted, October parity isn’t as novel as December parity — that’s when things can really get interesting.