The New England Patriots can clinch their 10th consecutive AFC East title with a victory or tie over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. And if the Patriots complete that decade of consecutive titles they would become the first NFL franchise to accomplish the feat.
Let that marinate for a moment.
The Dolphins were dominant in the early 1970s but they won the AFC East only four consecutive times. The Buffalo Bills were the AFC’s best team in the early 1990s, but the Dolphins won division titles in 1992 and ‘94.
The Patriots have allowed no other division rival to sniff a division crown since Miami in 2008.
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This speaks to the greatness of coach Bill Belichick. And perhaps more than that, it speaks to the greatness of quarterback Tom Brady, because the truth is the Patriots are also vying for their 15th title in 16 seasons, with the only year they didn’t win the division in that span being 2008.
The year Brady missed the season after blowing out his knee in the season opener.
So, yes, the Patriots have been great and are reaping their just rewards.
But, honestly, to achieve this level of dominance within a professional football division there has to come some help from other sectors.
Meet the sectors: The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets.
While the Patriots have obviously pulled their weight in climbing to a plateau of excellence year after year, the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets have been running in place at the base of Mount Poo, effectively lifting the Patriots higher by being inadequate.
And the amazing thing is these three teams have been inadequate in virtual unison as if this was a grand plan hatched by Patriots owner Robert Kraft — a plan to which his three lowly AFC East rivals somehow all agreed.
So while New England’s lasting dominance has been eye-popping, I would argue it is more stunning that three other professional franchises could be so lost at the same time for so long. I mean, that almost takes a degree of cohesion or coordination.
So how did this happen?
Obviously the Patriots found two future Pro Football Hall of Famers to lead the franchise for virtually longer than any quarterback and coach combination have a right to do.
Consider: The Patriots have had one head coach and one unquestioned quarterback since 2001. And that duo has won five Super Bowls, eight conference titles and 15 division titles.
The entire rest of the division?
The Dolphins have won one division title since 2001, that in 2008 under Tony Sparano. The Dolphins have had nine head coaches. The Dolphins are 0-3 in the playoffs since 2001.
The Bills have had a dark time since the turn of the century. Last year they made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and promptly lost in the wild card round. So the Bills are 0-1 in the playoffs since 2001.
The Bills have also had nine head coaches since 2001.
The Jets also won the division once since 2001, that in 2002. The Jets did get into the playoffs under Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan as wild-card entrants and even reached the AFC title games twice under Ryan. Their playoff record since 2001 is 6-6.
So what I’m telling you is the Patriots have won more division titles than the others combined.
They have won more playoff games than the other three combined.
And they’re the only one of the four teams to win the conference or Super Bowl title this century.
I don’t want to tell you the New England success is as simple as Brady. It surely is more complex than that. But the evidence that suggests having a great quarterback is key to success has the Patriots as Exhibit 1.
And the argument that a team cannot compete for greatness without a great quarterback offers the Bills, Dolphins and Jets at Exhibit 1.
Because Brady has been the New England quarterback throughout their successful run except for extenuating circumstances such as injury (2008) and NFL suspension (2016).
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have had 19 different men start at quarterback since 2001 — none of them consistently great.
The Bills have had 17 different starting quarterbacks since 2001 — none of them consistently great.
And the Jets have had 14 different quarterbacks since 2001 — you get the idea.
Can you see a theme emerging here?
The Patriots’ dominance since 2001 in general and the past decade specifically can be traced to their excellence at two key positions within their organization: Head coach and quarterback.
It’s not the defense. The Patriots have won with good and lesser defenses.
It’s not the personnel department. The Patriots have missed often, as many teams do, and have seen multiple personnel people move on to lesser success elsewhere while the Patriots have maintained their level of success.
It’s not in the assistant coaches, either, because they come and gone and none have seemed to match the success they had when they worked in New England.
But there is another reason the Patriots have been so good:
Because the Dolphins, Bills and Jets have been unified in their inability to compete. To be on par with New England.
The Patriots have been Jack Nicklaus. The others have been Happy Gilmore.
The Patriots are 31-4 against Buffalo since 2001.
The Patriots are 28-9 against New York since 2001.
The Patriots are 24-11 against Miami since 2001.
The Dolphins have the best record of the sad three since 2001. They are 132-152.
The Jets are 131-153 since 2001.
The Bills are 117-167 since 2001.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have authored a 218-66 record since 2001.
The Patriots have been great in part because the other three conspired to often be the exact opposite of great. All since 2001.
Amazingly, all at once.