Might be too soon to count out Belichick, Pats in AFC East

NFL

NEW YORK (AP)It’s tempting to pick against the New England Patriots this year. It really is.

The up-and-coming Buffalo Bills have emerged as a popular pick to dethrone Bill Belichick’s bunch atop the AFC East. And, on paper, it certainly seems reasonable.

Tom Brady is gone – and so is some of the mystique that has surrounded the Patriots for most of the last two decades.

Just don’t try selling any of that changing-of-the-guard stuff to Belichick.

”It’s professional football,” the Patriots coach said. ”It’s the National Football League. Every team has changes every year. We have them, so does everybody else, and I think right now, everybody’s focused on this year. We’re looking ahead. We’re not looking backwards at anything.”

In other words, Brady or no Brady, it’s all just talk until someone else actually wins the division.

New England has won the AFC East in 17 of the past 19 years, including the last 11. Bills general manager Brandon Beane insisted in April that the Patriots remain the team to beat in the division.

And that remains true. Especially because Belichick is still running things in Foxborough.

QUARTERBACK CAM

With training camp wrapping up, Belichick decided on Cam Newton as his starting quarterback for the Patriots’ Week 1 game against Miami.

No surprise there, really. A person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Thursday that Newton was announced as the No. 1 quarterback during a team meeting – beating out Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer for the job.

Newton was signed as a free agent in July after he was released by Carolina. Injuries shortened the last two seasons for the 2015 NFL MVP, and now he finds himself in New England looking to resuscitate his career – and replace a quarterback who led the franchise to six Super Bowl victories.

The 31-year-old Newton feels no pressure.

”I mean, it’s a breath of fresh air, to be honest with you,” Newton said. ”It’s a challenge that I had to accept each and every day, but no challenge is ever going to be greater than the personal challenge that I challenge myself personally. Yeah, we all know what that was and what it is and it needs no mention. But yet at the same time, I think I’ve got my hands full with trying to learn as much as I can in a short period of time, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

ALL IN ON ALLEN

Buffalo has reason to feel a bit confident after making it to the playoffs for the second time in three years. The Bills lost to Houston in the wild-card round, but it provided them a blueprint for success.

”I think most importantly, having the home playoff game, I think that’s something that we need,” quarterback Josh Allen said. ”That comes with winning the division.”

Allen’s progress in his third season remains the focal point for Buffalo. He’s an exciting playmaker with his cannon arm and ability to make things happen with his legs. But he can be frustratingly inconsistent, something coach Sean McDermott thinks will improve.

”I’ve been around some quarterbacks who started off very much like Josh has and have developed and played at a high level in Donovan McNabb and Cam Newton,” McDermott said. ”And, so, that takes time. In particular at the quarterback position, there’s a lot to balance. But we’re encouraged by Josh’s development.”

SAM THE MAN?

The Jets are facing a similar situation as the Bills in that they need their quarterback to show he can lead the franchise for years to come.

Sam Darnold dealt with mononucleosis at the start of last season and was inconsistent behind a shoddy offensive line and up-and-down play calling by coach Adam Gase. The third-year quarterback showed real signs of improvement down the stretch, though, and helped New York flip a 1-7 start to a 7-9 finish. Darnold has taken on a much bigger leadership role this summer and is impressing his teammates.

”As a leader, he’s one of the best,” said center Connor McGovern, in his first season with the Jets and the leader of a revamped O-line. ”I feel like he’s a veteran because he plays with confidence, he knows what to do and he’s not out there second-guessing himself. If I wouldn’t have known he’s 23 years old. He’s playing like a true vet right now.”

SOUTH BEACH SHUFFLE

The Dolphins have lots of new faces, loading up with 11 draft picks – including quarterback Tua Tagovailoa – and adding several other players such as cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and running backs Jordan Howard and Matt Breida.

Despite the excitement over Tagovailoa, it appears veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick will start the season under center while the rookie continues to get up to speed after a not-so-great camp. The offensive line is also a factor, as three rookies – first-round pick Austin Jackson at left tackle, second-rounder Robert Hunt at right tackle, and fourth-rounder Solomon Kindley at right guard – could start.

”We have to get all three of them up to speed pretty quickly to do that,” coach Brian Flores said. ”But look, if they’re (among) the five most talented players (on the line) and that gives us to have some success, then we would have to do that.”

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Patriots, Bills, Jets, Dolphins.

AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, John Wawrow and Steven Wine contributed.

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