AFC East Floors and Ceilings

By Lee Wakefield

Another division, another legitimately exciting group of teams for the 2023 season, and perhaps another division with a claim to be the best in football. Although, I’ve said that three out of the four times I’ve written these columns.

However, this time, I might be right – The AFC East is incredible.

The Bills and Dolphins, in particular, could lay claim to the title of the most talented roster in the NFL from top to bottom. The Jets have Aaron Rodgers now and seem to want to push their chips into the middle of the table too. And if the worst team in the division has Bill Belichick as their head coach and a top-tier defense, well, it can’t be bad at all.

In 2023, the AFC East promises to be a bloodbath.

Buffalo Bills

So close but yet so far.

This is how we could describe the Bills in recent times. The Bills have been kings of the AFC East for three straight years now and once again have an incredible roster, a star Head Coach and a top-3 quarterback in the league.

Yet, in the past two seasons they have lost in the divisional round of the playoffs, and there are questions being asked about whether their peak Superbowl chances are behind them.

However, one thing the Bills have shown over Sean McDermott’s time is the ability to overcome.

In his first few years, they lost in the Wildcard round a couple of times. Then they’ve risen to being a 13-win team and going all the way to the AFC Championship game and despite losing to the Chiefs back in 2020, they have come back and once again won 13 games last season.

Can the Bills go a couple of steps further, and win the franchise’s elusive Superbowl?

God help tables in the Buffalo area if it happens.

Image Credit: Buffalo News

The Floor:

I’ll cut to the chase – The questions about whether the Bills’ best shot at a Superbowl is just behind them are legitimate ones. Josh Allen is on a monster deal now, they appear to have some unrest in the building with Stefon Diggs and, making desperate deals like they did for Von Miller are ones teams make when they’re all in.

Even though everyone is a year older and the window isn’t at its widest, it is still wide open. The defense is still one of the best in the NFL, they have true stars littered throughout the roster and they have an elite QB.

McDermott has also proven to be a great coach whose record speaks for itself. There’s a potential issue that he is now wearing two hats and is not only the Head Coach but also the Defensive Coordinator too. But apparently, he’s loving it.

With all of this in mind, despite some drawbacks and a tough schedule, I don’t see the Bills being anything worse than 11-6.

The Ceiling:

Buffalo is one of maybe three or four teams in the NFL whose ceiling is pretty much limitless. On their day they can be the NFL’s premier team, they can beat anybody, even if their opponent plays well.

I will never predict a 17-0 season for a team as part of this exercise because all of those three or four teams, inhabit divisions where you’re just not going to sweep the rest. The AFC East has too many pitfalls on its own for the Bills to go 6-0, and then you’ve got to consider games against Kansas City, Cincinnati, Dallas, Philadelphia, and the Chargers outside of the division. The weather can also do crazy things up in the high north too!

That said, the Bills will probably overcome a number of their toughest opponents and they seem to thrive in the cold. With an all-time record of 114-106-2 in games where the temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) or colder (Per Stathead).

I give the Bills a ceiling of 15-2.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are another team who have turned things around in recent years to become a serious player in AFC East and the NFL as a whole. They are a Superbowl-contending team. They act like it, they make moves to improve their roster like it, and in Mike McDaniel, they have a Head Coach who holds himself like a guy who could hoist a Lombardi one day. 

From the Lolphins era under Adam Gase to Tanking for Tua under Brian Flores to the present day really does feel like this franchise has done a complete 180, for the better.

McDaniel has brought in Vic Fangio to run his defense, and he will continue to run his ultra-fast offense where speed truly is king.

Despite the injury to Jalen Ramsey, which is a blow to the team, the roster is primed for a big run in 2023.

That said, despite the elite coaching staff and the deep roster, the floor and ceiling might just depend on one man, Tua Tagovailoa.

The Floor:

Can Tua stay on the field? Has his offseason work on his body, where he has put on a lot of lean muscle mass and taken martial arts classes, given him the ability to play 17 plus games in 2023? 

After all, Tua had the highest QBR (105.5) of all QBs with a minimum of 400 passing attempts last year. Tua is also one of the more accurate passers in the NFL when he’s healthy and in rhythm. Accuracy has always been his calling card and when he’s in the offense that he is, with a track team around him, all he needs to be is a point guard.

If all goes well, Tua stays healthy, the offense keeps rolling and Fangio gives the defense the bump they need, this team has a super-high floor.

However, 13 games is the most that Tua has played in a season as a pro. There is a case to be made that this could be his last as a Dolphin if a deep playoff run isn’t made. If Tua fails to stay healthy how far does this team go with Mike White running the show? I’ll say 8-9.

The Ceiling:

The floor prediction is an extremely pessimistic one. I understand that, but the spectrum of potential outcomes for this team based on Tua’s health really is as wide as any team in the NFL.

However, putting a positive spin on things the season can look very different indeed. If Tua is now robust enough to withstand the rigors of a full season plus playoffs, the Dolphins should push the Bills all the way in the AFC East, and be a potential Superbowl candidate.

This offense has speed that very few teams can cope with and an innovative play caller who can keep them one step ahead. To me, the offense of a team is what really gives it its ceiling, so the sky is the limit here similar to the Bills.

Week 1 against the Chargers will tell us a lot, about both teams and could be a real tone-setter for the season ahead. I think the Dolphins can win in L.A. and set themselves up for a 13-4 season if everything flows their way.

New England Patriots

Is Bill on the hot seat?

Now five years removed from their most recent playoff win and having overseen a couple of very mediocre seasons in that time, is time finally catching up on the grandmaster of the NFL?

The Patriots roster reeks of meh, quite honestly. Mac Jones, Meh. The skill position players are super-meh and whilst the defensive is still good, there’s zero star power.

For a team and fanbase that are used to winning, is being maybe the third-best team in the AFC East good enough? And third-best is probably an optimistic view at this point.

Nothing lasts forever, and whilst Robert Kraft will likely never fire Bill Belichick, perhaps a move to some kind of front office or a ceremonial role like Life President (or similar) won’t be too far away if the Patriots sink much further from last year’s 8-9 season.

The Floor:

It is tough to imagine a slide much further from 8-9, as we have to go back to 2002 to find a time when New England didn’t win double-digit games prior to the Mac Jones era.

However, it is important to note that almost off of Belichick’s success in New England has aligned with Tom Brady’s time as their quarterback.

Bill is have the defense playing, despite the aforementioned lack of star players, but will the hiring of Bill O’Brien give the offense the jolt it needs?

The rest of the league seems to be picking coaches from the Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay coaching trees – Which are actually one of the same and are probably the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, but that’s another topic for another day – But Bill keeps just hiring guys he has a close relationship with.

If it doesn’t work out, in a tough division I do think they could sink further, potentially to 5-11. The same record that the Patriots had in 2000, in Belichick’s first season with the team.

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The Ceiling:

I’ve mentioned the previous season’s record of 8-9 a couple of times now, and when thinking of the ceiling, this is a number I keep coming back to.

It’s not going to be the exciting prediction that I’ve given for other teams in the division but the AFC East is tough. The arrow appears to be pointing downwards for New England whereas, for the rest of the division, it is firmly pointing upwards.

The Patriots’ defense gives them a high floor but I can’t get excited about anything that will give them a high ceiling so it has to be 8-9.

New York Jets

The Jets are the talk of the NFL right now with the verbal spat between Sean Payton and Aaron Rodgers. With Nathaniel Hackett now clapping back at the Denver Head Coach. 

The drama just follows Rodgers around at the moment and I am sure he will want to make sure that he shows the NFL that he and the Jets can put their money where their mouths are once the season starts. One thing is for certain, everyone will be watching when New York travels to Mile High in Week 5. 

However, before then and before the season starts, the news cycle will still revolve around Aaron Rodgers and the Jets as they appear on Hard Knocks. This could certainly be the perfect way to kick off the season…  Because everyone loves a bit of drama when it comes to the NFL, don’t they?

On the field, the Jets are certainly another team who are looking up after years of being in a slump. The team has young stars in Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson, a future Hall of Fame QB and another one of those Head Coaches from the hottest coaching tree in the NFL. But can they improve on 7-10 to improve for the third season running?

The Floor:

The floor of this team can either be maintained of destroyed by a couple of things.

Firstly, and most importantly, is Aaron Rodgers still that guy and is he mentally engaged? Rodgers appears to be engaged. He is fighting for his coaches and his new team and he reworked his contract as a huge favour to the Jets which likely means he’s sticking around. Add this to the manner in which he divorced himself from Green Bay and only wanted to play for the Jets. He certainly appears to be ready for another revenge tour.

The other factor is the offensive line.

This one appears to be a little less certain. There has been some investment made by General Manager, Joe Douglas, in both the draft and in free agency in the past few years. But the simple fact of the matter is, some of those investments have bore the fruit that they were hoping for. New York could really use Mekhi Becton at full power and focus right now.

If the line crumbles and Rodgers looks like he’s lost some of his evasive prowess at 39 years old, we could be seeing some of those death stares at his linemen.

If things aren’t perfect in year 1 of Rodgers and the Jets, we could see a modest increase in wins to 9-8.

The Ceiling:

The optimistic side of this for Jets fans is that Aaron Rodgers is only a couple of years removed from an MVP award and as above he appears to be highly motivated. Rodgers will be even more motivated given this past week’s verbals with Denver too.

Whilst the roster isn’t as complete as the Bills or the Dolphins, with a high-level QB running things, this roster can be a playoff team. I have no doubts about that, even in a crowded AFC.

Given that the Jets were the fourth-placed team in the division last season gives them a softer schedule too. Which is something that they will certainly look to capitalise on in 2023.

If everything falls their way, I can see this team being a 10-7 team and in the right circumstances around the AFC, they could be in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Feature Image Credit:

Lee Wakefield

NFL, CFB & NFL Draft

Lee Wakefield IS A defensive line enthusiast, Chargers Sufferer, and LONG-TIME writer and podcaster with a number of publications. Find his Chargers content over at Bolt Beat. @Wakefield90 on twitter