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AFC East preview: Bills look to break Patriots’ division dominance

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen passes during an NFL football training camp in Orchard Park, N.Y.
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen looks to improve in 2020 after a promising sophomore campaign.
(James P. McCoy / Associated Press)
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A team-by-team breakdown of each team in the AFC East along with their predicted order of finish.

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1. Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs runs with the ball.
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
(James P. McCoy / Associated Press)

2019 | 10-6, 2nd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2019

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WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

Even though they had two one-possession losses to the division-rival New England Patriots, the Bills finished 10-6 and made the playoffs for the second time in three years. They lost by a field goal in overtime to Houston in the first round, extending their drought without a playoff victory to 25 years.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Josh Allen. The third-year quarterback took a big step forward with his accuracy last season, yet still has work to do on his down-the-field passing. He does a better job of protecting the football, and is dangerous when he tucks the ball and runs.

KEEP AN EYE ON

The receivers. The Bills added former Vikings star Stefon Diggs, giving them a corps that includes speedy John Brown and sure-handed Cole Beasley and forming one of the NFL’s best and most versatile receiving trios. Allen will have plenty of options.

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2. New England Patriots

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton (1) winds up for a pass.
New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton.
(Steve Senne / Associated Press)

2019 | 12-4, 1st in East

Last year in playoffs | 2019

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Patriots started 8-0 for the third time in history, but the cracks began to show in the second half of the season when they lost to three of the AFC’s better teams: Baltimore, Houston, and Kansas City. New England finished 12-4, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Tennessee.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Bill Belichick. With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, the Patriots are banking on their Canton-bound coach to figure a way to win without the quarterback. That’s more than solving the QB riddle. It’s also getting the defense right after some key fixtures opted out.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Cam Newton. Assuming Newton wins the starting quarterback job from Jarrett Stidham, it will be fascinating to see how the Patriots change their offensive approach to best take advantage of his skills. Then again, in light of all his injuries, this isn’t the same Newton we saw in his Carolina Panthers prime.

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3. New York Jets

New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold jogs on the practice field.
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.
(Adam Hunger / Associated Press)

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2019 | 7-9, 3rd in East

Last year in playoffs | 2010

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

Under new coach Adam Gase, the Jets got off to a 1-7 start — their worst in 12 years — but bounced back in the second half of the schedule and won six of eight. That 7-9 finish wasn’t good enough, however, and they missed the playoffs for the ninth year in a row.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Sam Darnold. The third-year quarterback from USC is still looking to play an entire season. He missed three games as a rookie because of a foot injury, and three more last season with mononucleosis. But he has shown steady progress and has new targets in Breshad Perriman and rookie Denzel Mims.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Le’Veon Bell. Reality for Bell fell drastically short of expectations, as he averaged a career-low 3.2 yards per carry in his first season with the Jets. A reshuffling of the offensive line could help, and the Jets also added the ageless Frank Gore, who lightens Bell’s load and is an excellent influence.

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4. Miami Dolphins

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa throws the ball.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
(Joel Auerbach / Associated Press)

2019 | 5-11, 4th in East

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Last year in playoffs | 2016

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

In their first season under Brian Flores, the Dolphins started 0-7 and looked to be tanking for the No. 1 pick. But they rallied behind their coach and won five of their last nine games, showing a lot of grit for a team that basically everyone had written off.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Flores. The rebuilding is underway in all areas, but this much is consistent: The Dolphins play hard for their coach. Flores has tapped into his New England roots and has imported Patriots players, coaches and philosophies. There’s nowhere to go but up, and this team is headed that way.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins used the No. 5 pick on the dynamic Alabama quarterback with a surgically repaired hip, the idea being he is the future of the franchise. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a capable bridge to the future in that regard. Miami can win some games with Fitzpatrick.

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