It's easy to imagine there were cheers and sighs of relief in equal amounts up in Buffalo after Tom Brady announced he would not be re-signing with the New England Patriots this offseason, leaving the AFC East in the process. Brady and the Patriots' domination of the division affected the other AFCE teams, but they loved to pick on the Bills in particular. With Brady starting, the Patriots lost to the Bills three times in 20 years. His departure meant the division title was truly up for grabs for the first time in that timespan and signaled the end of the Bills seeing their boogeyman twice a year.
Buffalo was the popular pick to take up the mantle of the best team in the division after Brady went to Tampa Bay. They were a playoff team last year, riding the unpredictability of Josh Allen and the consistency of one of the league's top defenses. They traded for Stefon Diggs just before the NFL draft. It was all coming up Buffalo for a bit.
Then the Patriots signed Cam Newton, and suddenly there's a whole new monster to deal with in Foxborough. Through three weeks of football, it seems that while New England looks like a much different team than in the past, they'll be as difficult to take down as ever. Newton looks healthy and like the dangerous, versatile quarterback he was for many years in Carolina. Bill Belichick will not give up the AFC East crown so easily.
Thus, the battle for the AFC East might end up being the most entertaining race in all of football this season. The Bills have started their season 3-0 with Allen looking like a legit MVP candidate so far. This past Sunday presented their first real challenge after they manhandled the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets in the first two weeks of the season when the Los Angeles Rams came to town. Buffalo went up 28-3 before nearly blowing the lead and coming away with a 35-32 win. That obviously isn't exactly how they'd like to win games, but the defense will come around. Sean McDermott has consistently coached elite units in his time in Buffalo, and there's no reason to think this year won't be the same once everybody gets into rhythm. It's extremely encouraging that Allen is off to a hot start, because if he plays even slightly above-average, Buffalo can beat almost anybody.
The Patriots, meanwhile, look different but the results look the same. They're 2-1 with one loss coming to the scorching Russell Wilson in Seattle, and they had a chance to win that game on the last play of the fourth quarter. They handled a good Raiders squad pretty easily at home yesterday despite a poor passing performance from Newton. The defense is generally suspect outside of the secondary, but Belichick is the best coach in the league when it comes to getting something out of nothing on that side of the ball.
The Patriots and the Bills will face off for the first time this season on November 1 in Week 8. Both teams should be firmly in the AFC playoff mix at that point. With an extra wild-card slot this year, there's a good chance both teams still end up in the playoffs, even if only one can come away with the division title. But winning the division would guarantee a home playoff game at the very least. Both squads recognize how important that is. It'll be a fierce battle, one that could come down to a Week 17 meeting in December. No matter what, it'll be entertaining as hell.