Jets, Dolphins, Bills take aim at Patriots' throne
NEW YORK >> The last time the New England Patriots opened a season without Tom Brady under center, few could have imagined what the young quarterback would become.
It was 2001, when Drew Bledsoe started the first two games before suffering a serious chest injury — opening the door for a second-year quarterback from Michigan drafted 199th overall. Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory that season, the first of four titles so far that he and coach Bill Belichick have won with New England.
Fifteen years and tons of accolades later, Brady will have to sit out the first four games of this season for his role in the "Deflategate" scandal.
"I'll be excited to be back when I'm back," he said, "and I'll be cheering our team on, hoping they can go out and win every game."
A lot of that, of course, will be up to how Jimmy Garoppolo performs in Brady's absence.
The 2014 second-rounder out of Eastern Illinois will go back to the sideline when Brady returns, but Garoppolo could set the tone for the Patriots in the AFC East. New England has won the division seven straight years, and 12 of the last 13 — with the only stumble coming in 2008, when Brady tore knee ligaments in the season opener.
The best bet for the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills might be to make their move early.
"You've got to win your division games," Jets wide receiver Eric Decker said. "With Brady being suspended four games, I think it makes the division up for grabs."
Both Buffalo and Miami play New England in the first four weeks, but none of the Patriots' division rivals is throwing any dirt on its rival just yet.
"He's important for those guys, but if you've been watching, you can see they're still doing some of the same things," Bills safety Corey Graham said. "They're playing very well. It's a great system to be in. Don't get me wrong, Tom Brady's one of the greatest quarterbacks, but I feel like the backup guy can more than get the job done."
While Brady's absence might be the biggest story line, here are other things to know about the AFC East:
BRADY'S BUNCH: The Patriots' offense has a few major question marks beyond the quarterback. There's uncertainty at running back with projected starter Dion Lewis working his way back from knee surgery, so it might be a committee approach — as Belichick has often done. Tight end Rob Gronkowski has been sidelined since Aug. 15 with an undisclosed ailment, while wide receivers Julian Edelman (left foot) and Danny Amendola (left knee, bone spurs in ankle) are working their way back from injuries.
The offensive line will have a new look with David Andrews taking over at center and rookie Joe Thuney, a third-rounder, likely starting at left guard.
MORE FITZ MAGIC?: It took the Jets and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick the entire offseason to settle a contract stalemate, but it was a reunion both sides knew was inevitable. Fitzpatrick took over last summer when Geno Smith had his jaw broken by a punch from a teammate and went on to set a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes. Brandon Marshall broke team marks with 109 catches and 1,502 yards receiving while scoring 14 TDs, and Decker had 80 receptions for 1,027 yards and 12 TDs. The addition of versatile running back Matt Forte should make the offense even more dangerous.
The key for the Jets, though, is getting through their rough first half of the schedule. They have six road games in the first nine weeks, and five of their first six opponents made the playoffs last season.
GASE ON THE CASE: Adam Gase is the NFL's youngest head coach at 38, but his stock rose immensely during the last few years as an assistant with his work with quarterbacks.
He'll have his hands full in Miami, where his QB expertise will be needed to further the development of Ryan Tannehill, who has a big arm and a big contract, but has yet to post a winning record in four seasons. He has thrown for more than 4,000 yards each of the last two seasons, but has been inconsistent.
Whether the Dolphins have gotten their offensive line fixed, so that Tannehill isn't under pressure all the time, is another major question.
REX'S WRECK: It has been a rough summer for Rex Ryan's Bills, who might have finally found a bona fide starter in quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but have huge issues on defense.
Ryan fully revamped the unit after it underperformed last year, but the Bills' two top draft picks are injured. Outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, a first-rounder, had shoulder surgery in May and is expected to miss at least the first month of the season. Buffalo's second-rounder, inside linebacker Reggie Ragland, is out for the season with a knee injury.
Starting defensive tackle Marcell Dareus will also miss the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy for a second consecutive year.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Bills.
AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, John Wawrow and Steven Wine contributed.
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