As the NFL season began only a few short months after the Patriots were knocked off the league’s mantle by the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, one message remained clear in the AFC East: The Patriots were the team to beat. It was hard to ignore the premium talent on the New England roster. After all, the Patriots essentially returned the same roster (minus CB Asante Samuel) that finished the 2007 16-0, matching the 1972 Dolphins as the only NFL team to reach such a feat. They were equipped with an MVP quarterback in Tom Brady, two All-Pro wide receivers in Randy Moss and Wes Welker, a three-time Super Bowl champion defense and a mastermind head coach in Bill Belichick. Suffice to say, in the AFC East, it was the Patriots and then everyone else.

However, aside from the Patriots, the division was not so clear. The Bills were led by the promising yet unproven quarterback Trent Edwards and the Dolphins were attempting to rebound from a 1-15 season, with the same Chad Pennington that was jettisoned out of New York. Then came the Jets, who invested $140 million in free agency and added one of the game’s most legendary figures in quarterback Brett Favre. But many were left to wonder whether the talent would mesh and prove successful on the football field. Surely all the answers would be proven in a few short months. But now as Week Eight of the season approaches, we are still waiting.

Currently the race for AFC East supremacy remains wide open, as the Bills (5-2) and Patriots (5-2) remain tied atop the division, while the Jets (4-3) and Dolphins (3-4) sit close behind. However, more telling than the records is the way each team has gotten to its respective place in the standings. First, start off with the Patriots…

New England is without Brady and its vocal leader on defense in safety Rodney Harrison, but the Patriots just continue to win. After a Week Three loss to Miami (38-13) which seemed to expose the Patriots and starting quarterback Matt Cassel, New England has run off four wins in its last five games. Yes all four of those wins have come against suspect opponents such as the 49ers (2-6), Broncos (4-3) and Rams (2-5) but nonetheless, the Patriots have been able to do what others in the division have not. They have beaten the opponents they are supposed to beat.

Then come the Buffalo Bills, who have thrived off a rise in production from Edwards (67.9 completion percentage, 92.9 rating) and a solid defense (302 yards allowed/game, 4th in AFC). Buffalo looked to be the favorite in the division through the season’s first seven weeks, but a 25-16 loss to the Dolphins last Sunday left many question whether the Bills’ fast start was simply an aberration. With defensive end Aaron Schobel (foot) out for tomorrow’s matchup with the Jets, the Bills are left searching for a pass rush against a top offense.

Then comes the Jets, who have the talent to compete, but have not translated it to winning football. After opening the season with a hard-fought 20-14 win over the  Dolphins, the Jets were wildly inconsistent in a loss to the Patriots and then followed that up with a 48-29 loss to the Chargers. Even with Favre and a revamped offensive line, the Jets’ offense has yet to hit a rhythm. When the passing game works, the running game seems to stall and when the running game is hitting on all cylinders, Favre cannot get out of his own way. Even though the Jets hold a winning record, their four wins have come against inferior opponents (Miami, Arizona, Cincinnati, Kansas City) in less than impressive fashion.

That leaves the Dolphins, who have already tripled their win total from last season. Even though the Dolphins have recorded wins against the Patriots, Chargers and Bills, they do not scare anyone. For now, all that remains certain in the AFC East is that the race for the top is wide open. At the end of the afternoon tomorrow, the Jets can either find themselves in a tie for first in the AFC East, or a tie for last. There is a long way to go and even more to be proven in 2008 for the Jets.

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