Can Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills repeat as AFC East champions, and make another deep playoff run in the 2021-22 NFL playoffs? Will the re-tooled New England Patriots make a return to the postseason? Can the Miami Dolphins build on last year’s 10-6 season and put pressure on the Bills for the division title? Will Zach Wilson prove to be an instant upgrade at quarterback for the New York Jets, or will New York end up missing Sam Darnold: ghosts and all?

The 2021-22 NFL season kicks off on Thursday, September 9. In the past, I’ve predicted the league’s standings as a whole near the end of August, but this year, I’ve decided to break down my predictions division by division. As a reminder, this year marks the first time the NFL has implemented a 17-game season, resulting in new record possibilities. Gone is the dead-even 8-8 mark, the infamous 7-9 disappointing finish, and undefeated and winless seasons are less likely to happen with the addition of a 17th game.

First, I’ll break down the AFC East. A division long dominated by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots has become an exciting one with multiple competitive teams but one clear front-runner, that has their eyes not only set on the division title but also stands as a top Super Bowl 56 contender.

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1. Buffalo Bills (13-4)

Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs the reason Bills are top contenders – The Athletic
Photo: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills finished 13-3 last season, winning the AFC East and earning the second seed in the AFC playoffs, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs. Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, and the Bills eventually met Kansas City in the AFC Championship, falling short in a heartbreaker for Buffalo fans. Still, the Bills proved they were a team on the rise, nearly reaching Super Bowl 55. This season, Buffalo will look to run it back as AFC East champions.

The division won’t be a cakewalk: as the Patriots should be back stronger than last season and the Dolphins showed promise with a 10-6 campaign last year. But the Bills are the team to beat in the AFC East. Allen’s offense put up 501 points last season, second only to the Green Bay Packers, while Buffalo maintained a solid defense. The Bills posted a 7-1 home record last year, and that was without the presence of their die-hard fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a rocking home atmosphere, one of the best quarterback-wide receiver tandems in the NFL, and a solid defense, Buffalo should earn a top seed in the AFC once again as they search for an elusive Super Bowl title.

2. New England Patriots (10-7)

Patriots: Cam Newton's latest joke about Bill Belichick actually has us  wondering
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the first year of the post-Tom Brady era, the New England Patriots finished 7-9 with some up-and-down play throughout the season. But with the return of some key defensive players who sat last season out for health reasons, an aggressive push in free agency, and a year of experience with Bill Belichick under Cam Newton’s belt, the Patriots postseason absence may not last very long.

In addition to key players like linebacker Dont’a Hightower returning to the team, Belichick and the Patriots front office had a field day in free agency. On the defensive side of the ball, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Matthew Judon, Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Jalen Mills, Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Davon Godchaux, and Las Vegas Raiders linebacker Raekwon McMillan all joined New England via free agency.

Cam Newton should be better in year two with the Patriots, between increased comfort in Belichick’s system as well as a clean and healthy slate. Former Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith, Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, and Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Nelson Agholor all give Newton more weapons to work with.

Throw in an impressive draft, and the fact that at 7-9, the Patriots underperformed last season, and a bounce back performance seems pretty likely. I have New England booked as an AFC wildcard team at 10-7.

UPDATE 9/6/21: I certainly thought the Patriots would roll with Cam Newton, but they shockingly released him to make Mac Jones the starter. I’m not going to re-structure my predictions, perhaps Bill Belichick knows what he’s doing and the switch to Jones won’t negatively affect the Patriots win total. If New England takes a step back though, look for the Miami Dolphins to potentially finish in second place with a wildcard berth.

3. Miami Dolphins (9-8)

The Miami Dolphins finished 10-6 last season, a fine record, but one that didn’t get the team in to the postseason even with the advent of a third wildcard team in each conference. Miami finished a game behind the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and Indianapolis Colts, who all posted 11-5 records. For the 2021-22 NFL season, I see the Dolphins finishing in a similar position: just one game out of an AFC Wildcard position.

Tua Tagovailoa will enter the season as the Dolphins full-time starter after splitting time with Ryan Fitzpatrick last season. The problem is, Tagovailoa could barely hold on to the starting job last season. Will he be able to keep the Dolphins competitive over the course of the 17-game regular season?

If not, the serviceable Jacoby Brissett will be waiting on the sidelines to assume any emergency or backup duties. But as the old adage goes: when you have two quarterbacks, you have none.

Miami has a talented roster, and added an explosive weapon to the passing game in former Houston Texans wide receiver Wil Fuller. But with questions surrounding just how consistent Tagovailia can be in the NFL, and strong Buffalo and New England teams in the division, the Dolphins find themselves moving laterally from year-to-year instead of upwards.

4. New York Jets (4-13)

Photo: Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The New York Jets feel like they’ve been stuck in an eternal rebuild for much of the last decade. A revolving door of both young and veteran quarterbacks has left the Jets offense without an identity for quite some time. While New York has employed defensive stars Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams, the franchise was unable to keep either stud long-term.

Enter 2021, and the Jets are set to roll with former BYU quarterback and second overall pick Zach Wilson at quarterback. It’s unclear how much of an upgrade, if any, a rookie Wilson will offer in comparison to a fourth-year version of Sam Darnold. Over the next few seasons, Wilson could pan out to be a solid quarterback, but in his rookie campaign, there’s no reason to think Wilson will be a drastic upgrade over Darnold.

The Jets do have some shiny new toys such as former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis and 26-year-old Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson. New York enjoyed a good draft as well, adding depth on both sides of the ball. Still, in a talented division, the Jets lag behind their rivals in last pace for another year. The Jets are attempting to build a competitive football team, but are still a couple years away.

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