Let’s get something clear at the outset. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are two of the best ever at their respective NFL jobs. Belichick has routinely turned hodge-podge assortments of unknown defensive players into the top of the league units and his ability to control a team from the front office through the locker room is unparalleled. For my money, there isn’t a better coach that I’ve witnessed first hand in my lifetime and I grew up a Denver Broncos fan. Brady too is at or near the top of everyone’s list as the GOAT. Pick any major quarterback record and his name is at, or near the top with only Peyton Manning rivaling him for the title. I tend to lean toward Manning because he never had the benefit of playing under Belichick, which is a pretty big advantage for Brady. Manning’s best coach during his career was Tony Dungy, who once bragged about surrounding Manning with talents like “Brandon Stokely and Joseph Addai”… right. Still, I respect those who claim the title for Brady and that debate isn’t the point of this article.
BB and Brady just earned their 8th consecutive trip to the AFC Championship and have won something like 130 straight division titles. Okay, not that many, but the fact is they have owned the AFC East since 2001 when they took on the role of NFL’s version of the Lanisters by seizing control of Kings Landing. That division dominance is exactly why it shouldn’t be a shock that this is the 13th AFC Championship game they’ll have played in together.
Here is a fun exercise in futility: make a list of all the franchise quarterbacks in the AFC East since 2001 not named Tom Brady.
Are you done? You should be, there are none.
Now, make a list of all the remotely “great” coaches in the AFC East since 2001. Yep, none of those either, unless you count Sexy Rexy Ryan.
The story is pretty simple – the Dolphins, Jets, and Bills have been a quivering mass of failure for 18 years, and it’s dramatically impacted the competitive balance of the entire NFL. Again, I am not debating the greatness of Belichick and Brady, they are two of the best ever, but here’s some scary math that should infuriate the rest of the AFC.
The complete lack of talent at both the coaching position and quarterback position that has existed in the AFC East since 2001 basically gives the Patriots a 5-1 start to every season. They simply aren’t going to lose any division games barring the occasional fluke. In fact, since taking over as the starting QB in New England in 2001, Brady has lost only 21 division games while winning 81. Due to NFL scheduling rules, every team plays an entire AFC and NFC Division other than their own each year, this means that they are guaranteed at least two games against the bottom two teams of each of the divisions every year, that’s four more wins. On paper, they’re 9-1 before a single game is played. This leaves them routinely needing to only steal 3-4 of their remaining 6 games to lock up home field advantage every year. This is an incredible scheduling advantage that the Patriots have literally had for 18 years that very few other teams have ever had. It’s also brutal to the rest of the AFC that two greats like Belichick and Brady are the ones given this advantage every year.
It’s not uncommon for divisions to experience “down years” where only one team is competitive throughout the season, but this type of extended lack of competition is rare. The only comparable situation I can recall is, in fact, Peyton Manning and the Colts against the extended futility of the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars from 1998 to 2010. Even then, each of those teams strung together a couple of back to back 10 win seasons at various points and challenged Manning and the Colts, but none of them really ever had the aforementioned franchise QB or great head coach either. It was Manning’s division for most of those years.
The reality of the situation is that the New England Patriots have been gifted a huge advantage every year before the season even starts since the beginning of the Belichick/Brady era. At least, that was the reality. For the first time since that era began, Sam Darnold and perhaps even Josh Allen appear to represent the presence of a legitimate opposing franchise QB. Perhaps by 2019, but more likely by 2020 both young passers should be ready to make a run at the division title, but I would be surprised if either BB or Brady stick around to see that happen.
The two New England legends have had unprecedented success and they’ve earned their titles by beating the best of the best in the games that matter. That said, it hasn’t hurt the Kings of the East that they’ve been gifted a division from the day they took possession of the Iron Throne all those years ago.