Patriots' success goes beyond borders of AFC East

Patriots' success goes beyond borders of AFC East
September 2, 2014, 9:00 am
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Since 2001, the Patriots' record against the AFC East is 63-21, a winning percentage of .750.

Their record against the rest of the league is 85-29, a winning percentage of . . . .745.

So the Patriots have beaten the hell out of the rest of the league at the same rate they’ve beaten the hell out of their AFC East brethren.

Which kind of puts the hammer to the lazy notion that the Patriots’ sustained success is attributable to rolling annually through a crap division.

Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been bad recently. A prime example? 2012, when the Patriots went 6-0 in the division against the Henne-led Dolphins, the Fitzpatrick-led Bills and the Sanchez-led Jets.

And nobody’s going to be bronzing the headsets of the coaches Bill Belichick’s been squaring off with over the last 13 seasons -- your Wannstedts and Sparanos, Manginis and Edwards, Mularkeys, Jaurons and Gaileys.

But part of the reason those coaches cycled through quickly and the current ones are all on warm seats is that they don’t win the division and/or make the playoffs.

Why don’t they do that? Because the Patriots never come back to the pack when they leave the division.

Over the past two seasons, New England’s eight regular-season losses were by a total of 29 points. And two of those losses -- a 13-6 defeat in Cincinnati and a 41-34 loss to the 49ers -- account for nearly half of that margin.

Take out their two AFC East losses over the past two seasons, and they’ve lost six games by a total of 22 points.

Since the Patriots began ruling the AFC East in 2001 (the only times they weren’t division champs were 2002 and 2008, when they finished tied for first but were nosed out on tiebreakers) the relative power of each division has fluctuated.

Last year, the NFC West was the league’s power division, followed by the NFC South and AFC West. The AFC East was fourth-best in the league going by record (three teams at .500 or better).

In 2012, the NFC West and North and AFC North were the power divisions. In 2011 it was the AFC North. Truth be told, the AFC East hasn’t been genuinely competitive top-to-bottom since 2008, when Tom Brady was hurt for the season and the four teams went a combined 38-26. But from 2001 to 2005, it was a test.

The Patriots open the season in the division on Sunday. In the heat of South Florida against a Dolphins team that needs positive momentum to save Joe Philbin’s job. The Jets and Bills, with Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel attempting to prove they are long-term answers, aren’t sparking a lot of optimism either.

But the Patriots won’t be fattening up on these guys too soon then waddling off to scuffle against the rest of the league.

After the opener, New England won’t be back in the division until October 12 at Buffalo, followed four nights later by a Thursday night game against the Jets.

Then they don’t see an AFC East opponent again until late December, when they close the regular season with three divisional games.

Before those final three games roll around, we’ll know if the Patriots are who we think they are.

If they roll into the final weeks already in command of the AFC East, how bad the Dolphins, Jets and Bills actually are will be incidental.

If the Patriots need those games to get into the postseason, then the case could be made that they rely on the ineptitude of others.

And that would be the exception, not the rule.