The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least when it comes to the New England Patriots.
Sixteen years after lifting their first Lombardi trophy and shocking the world, the Patriots remain a team you can set your watch to – they wrap up the AFC East by early December and get within a game of the Super Bowl, if not win it, seemingly every season.
That doesn’t mean it won’t get harder to maintain their level of excellence though.
There were reports of turmoil between Brady and Belichick even before New England fell to the Philadelphia Eagles in February’s Super Bowl, and since then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to be the head coach in Detroit, Rob Gronkowski contemplated retirement, Julian Edelman was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, and Brady turned 41.
The last point will matter sooner rather than later. For now, Brady is still at the top of his game – as his 505-yard performance in the Super Bowl drove home – but Father Time is undefeated and a precipitous drop could be looming around the corner.
Until it comes or Belichick leaves, however, the road to the Super Bowl is likely to once again go through the Patriots, who’ve reached seven straight AFC Championship games.
Behind them sit a host a challengers who should fight for the conference’s throne, led by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It’s felt like Pittsburgh have been on the cusp each of the past four years, only to fall short in the playoffs. Funnily enough, as much as they view New England as their main rivals, they’ve only gotten far enough in the postseason to see their big brother once over that span – and the Patriots comfortably handled them 36-17 in 2017.
Yet their talent, particularly on offence, means they’re a team to be reckoned with and one that could break through any season, as long as Ben Roethlisberger, now 36, is still effective.
But with Le’Veon Bell all but gone after this season, this could be the Steelers’ last chance at a Super Bowl with this group of special playmakers, which includes wide receiver Antonio Brown. And that’s if Bell shows up and ends his holdout, which he has yet to do despite the season kicking off this week.
Even at full strength though, Pittsburgh’s high-powered attack may only rank as the third-most dominant force in the AFC, with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defence arguably ahead of them.
Jacksonville’s uber-talented unit dismantled the Steelers in January and is champing at the bit for another chance at the Patriots, who edged the up-and-comers in a comeback win in the AFC title game.
Blake Bortles appears to be the only one holding them back – an unfortunate crux for the Jaguars considering he plays the most important position.
That couldn’t be any less the case with the Houston Texans, who have their contention hopes pinned to a quarterback who has played all of seven games as a pro.
One year after lighting the league on fire in his brief time on the field before suffering an ACL tear, Deshaun Watson is back and ready to inject the same explosive element into the Texans offence that was sorely missed in his absence.
Speaking of explosiveness, the Kansas City Chiefs also have a gunslinger capable of shooting them into – and out of – games in Patrick Mahomes, who has been handed the reins after the team moved on from steady-handed Alex Smith.
Kansas City have made the playoffs four of the past five seasons under head coach Andy Reid, so as much as it may seem like a transitional year with an unproven quarterback, the Chiefs are hoping Mahomes is actually an upgrade and unlocks their potential.
However, they should have their hands full in the AFC West with the Los Angeles Chargers, who boast one of the most complete rosters in the league.
Philip Rivers – another aging veteran quarterback whose skills remain mostly intact – leads a team that has failed to reach double-digit wins in eight years and has missed the playoffs the last four.
Elsewhere, the Cleveland Browns will aim to break their atrocious 1-31 run, the Indianapolis Colts get back a healthy Andrew Luck and the Jon Gruden show returns to Oakland shorn of superstar Khalil Mack.
Maybe it’s East Coast bias, but the NFC East is seemingly always one of the most interesting divisions in football, and now that the defending Super Bowl champions reside in it, that feels even more true.
The Philadelphia Eagles won’t catch anyone by surprise this time around, but they’re still the team to beat until proven otherwise.
Learn more about the NFC East with our team guides below.
Head coach: Jason Garrett
Star player: Tyron Smith
Last season: 9-7
Key ins: Allen Hurns (Jacksonville), Tavon Austin (LA Rams), Leighton Vander Esch (rookie), Connor Williams (rookie), Michael Gallup (rookie)
Key outs: Dez Bryant (free agent), Jason Witten (retired), Anthony Hitchens (Kansas City), Orlando Scandrick (Washington), Alfred Morris (Washington)
Strengths: They may not be the most dominant offensive line anymore and are without Travis Frederick to start, but the unit still provides the identity of the team.
Weaknesses: Dak Prescott’s receivers are young and unproven.
Verdict: They’re closer to the rest of the field in the division than they are to the Eagles.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Head coach: Pat Shurmur
Star player: Odell Beckham Jr
Last season: 3-13
Key ins: Nate Solder (New England), Patrick Omameh (Jacksonville), Alec Ogletree (LA Rams), Connor Barwin (LA Rams), Jonathan Stewart (Carolina), Saquon Barkley (rookie), Will Hernandez (rookie)
Key outs: Jason Pierre-Paul (Tampa Bay), Brandon Marshall (Seattle), Jonathan Casillas (free agent), Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (Oakland), Justin Pugh (Arizona), D.J. Fluker (Seattle)
Strengths: Loaded with skill players for Eli Manning to work with.
Weaknesses: Secondary was a mess last year as they allowed second-most pass yards (252.4).
Verdict: Manning may be done, but if he’s not they could reach playoffs.
Head coach: Doug Pederson
Star player: Fletcher Cox
Last season: 13-3, won Super Bowl
Key ins: Michael Bennett (Seattle), Wallace (Baltimore), Haloti Ngata (Detroit), Dallas Goedert (rookie), Avonte Maddox (rookie)
Key outs: Trey Burton (Chicago), Najee Goode (Indianapolis), Torrey Smith (Carolina), LeGarrette Blount (Detroit), Patrick Robinson (New Orleans)
Strengths: Additions of Bennett and Ngata improve a defensive line that already gave opposing quarterbacks fits.
Weaknesses: Banged up heading into the season with several key players still recovering.
Verdict: Roster remains deep and full of talent, which should translate to another playoff run.
Head coach: Jay Gruden
Star player: Trent Williams
Last season: 7-9
Key ins: Alex Smith (Kansas City), Adrian Peterson (Arizona), Paul Richardson (Seattle), Pernell McPhee (Chicago), Da’Ron Payne (rookie)
Key outs: Derrius Guice (injury), Kirk Cousins (Minnesota), Su’a Cravens (Denver), Kendall Fuller (Kansas City, Ryan Grant (Indianapolis), Terrelle Pryor (NY Jets), Will Compton (Tennessee), Orlando Scandrick (Kansas City), Spencer Long (NY Jets)
Strengths: Offensive line continuity.
Weaknesses: Were gashed for a league-worst 134.1 yards per game on the ground last year.
Verdict: The switch from Cousins to Smith may be good enough to reach the playoffs, but little more.
The AFC East has had an interesting dichotomy this century – it’s been one of the weakest divisions in the league year over year, while fielding a dynasty that has been the class of the entire NFL.
It’s unlikely anything changes this season, with the New England Patriots still expected to rule with an iron fist above an underwhelming trio of teams.
Learn more on all four teams in our AFC East team guides.
Head coach: Sean McDermott
Star player: LeSean McCoy
Last season: 9-7, lost in Wild Card round
Key ins: Star Lotulelei (Carolina), Russell Bodine (Cincinnati), Chris Ivory (Jacksonville), Vontae Davis (Indianapolis), Josh Allen (rookie), Tremaine Edmunds (rookie)
Key outs: Tyrod Taylor (Cleveland), Cordy Glenn (Cincinnati), E.J. Gaines (Cleveland), Preston Brown (Cincinnati)
Strengths: Talented in the secondary with several playmakers.
Weaknesses: Offence has a chance to be the worst in the league.
Verdict: Unless their quarterbacks perform much better than expected – particularly Allen – they’ll be in contention for the top overall pick in next year’s draft.
Head coach: Adam Gase
Last season: 6-10
Star player: Cameron Wake
Key ins: Ryan Tannehill (injury), Josh Sitton (Chicago), Danny Amendola (New England), Robert Quinn (LA Rams), Frank Gore (Indianapolis), Albert Wilson (Kansas City), Minkah Fitzpatrick (rookie), Mike Gesicki (rookie)
Key outs: Ndamukong Suh (LA Rams), Jarvis Landry (Cleveland), Mike Pouncey (LA Chargers), Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans)
Strengths: The defensive end group has depth and experience.
Weaknesses: Top-end talent is lacking on both sides of the ball.
Verdict: Gase may have something up his sleeve, but it’s hard to imagine them fighting for a playoff spot considering the foundational pieces they lost, even in a weak division.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Head coach: Bill Belichick
Star player: Tom Brady
Last season: 13-3, lost in Super Bowl
Key ins: Cordarrelle Patterson (Oakland), Trent Brown (San Francisco), Adrian Clayborn (Atlanta), Danny Shelton (Cleveland), Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati) Sony Michel (rookie), Ju’Whaun Bentley (rookie)
Key outs: Dion Lewis (Tennessee), Malcolm Butler (Tennessee), Brandin Cooks (LA Rams), Danny Amendola (Miami), Nate Solder (NY Giants)
Strengths: Continued stability with Belichick and Brady leading the way.
Weaknesses: Wide receiver corps is thin with Julian Edelman suspended.
Verdict: The defence should be better and as long as Father Time doesn’t catch up to Brady, they’ll be in the mix come January.
NEW YORK JETS
Head coach: Todd Bowles
Star player: Leonard Williams
Last season: 5-11
Key ins: Trumaine Johnson (LA Rams), Spencer Long (Washington), Avery Williamson (Tennessee), Henry Anderson (Indianapolis), Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland), Terrelle Pryor (Washington), Sam Darnold (rooke), Nathan Shepherd (rookie)
Key outs: Matt Forte (retired), Muhammad Wilkerson (Green Bay), Demario Davis (New Orleans), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Jacksonville)
Strengths: Secondary features some of their best players.
Weaknesses: Pass rushing again appears to be lacking.
Verdict: With Darnold, they have hope for the future, but this will be a developmental year.