NEW YORK (AP) — The race is on in the AFC East — for second place.
Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots appear well on their way to running away their seventh straight division title and 13th in 14 years.
They’re 8-0, Brady is having one of his best statistical seasons — at age 38! — and Bill Belichick’s bunch has seemingly put all that “Deflategate” scandal stuff way behind.
“Our mission,” wide receiver Julian Edelman said, “is just to try and improve each week.”
The defending Super Bowl champions are already 3-0 in the division and have one game remaining against each of their AFC East rivals. There’s still a chance, of course, for New York, Buffalo or even Miami to dethrone New England atop the division. But keep this in mind: The only time the Patriots didn’t win it in the previous 13 seasons was in 2008, when Brady was lost for the season in Week 1 with torn knee ligaments. Even then, the Matt Cassel-led Patriots went 11-5, but were beaten out by Miami because of tiebreakers.
That means there’s plenty of work to do for the Jets, Dolphins and Bills.
“It’s a moving month in football, because everybody has gotten the kinks out of the way in September and October,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said. “You try to focus on what you are in November. You want to see if you have a shot and you have to win those games in November.”
Here are things to know about the AFC East for the second half of the season:
BRADY’S BODYGUARDS: If there’s one area of concern for the Patriots, it’s the offensive line. Belichick has had to do lots of shuffling because of injuries — and New England still keeps rolling.
In Sunday’s win over Washington, left tackle Sebastian Vollmer injured his head, so center Bryan Stork moved to right tackle and Cameron Fleming took Vollmer’s spot. Left tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon and guards Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason have all dealt with injuries — and Stork played for the first time all season Sunday. Even with all that, Brady wasn’t sacked.
“We’re all ready to contribute to the team,” Fleming said. “And it means a lot that we were able to keep Tom clean because that’s the name of the game.”
RYAN’S HOPE: Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was thrust into the starting job in the summer when Geno Smith had his jaw broken by then-teammate Ikemefuna Enemkpali, who’s now on the Bills. Fitzpatrick has been a steady veteran presence, but is dealing with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
“He’s resilient and he’s a great leader,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said of Fitzpatrick.
While it’s on his non-throwing hand and didn’t affect him in Sunday’s win over Jacksonville, Fitzpatrick could opt to have surgery at some point during the season. If he misses any time, it could affect the 5-3 Jets’ playoff chances because going to the up-and-down Smith while trying to make a playoff push could backfire.
REX IN EFFECT: Rex Ryan blew into Buffalo with plenty of his familiar bluster. But, so far, the Bills and their fans are waiting to see whether it’s all a bunch of hot air.
There have been rumblings by players on both offense and defense about their roles and the schemes Ryan and his staff are using. The Bills (4-4) are ranked 13th in overall defense and are tied for 26th with just 13 sacks. There have also been injuries on offense to key players such as quarterback Tyrod Taylor, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
“Let us be healthy,” Ryan said, “and then judge us for who we are.”
DAN THE MAN?: For two games, the Dolphins appeared rejuvenated and re-energized under interim coach Dan Campbell, who took over for the fired Joe Philbin and led Miami to victories.
The honeymoon appears over. The Dolphins (3-5) have lost two straight and are already 0-4 in the division, while showing the lack of consistent playmaking on both sides of the ball that marked Philbin’s tenure.
“We’re making it real tough on ourselves,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “We’re 0-fer in divisional games. Honestly, we’ve got one more loss and that’s about all we can give up.”
LATE-SEASON SHOWDOWNS: The last two weeks of the regular season could have major ramifications on: 1) whether the Patriots finish undefeated, and 2) who places second in the division. New England is at New York and Miami to wrap things up, while Buffalo hosts the Jets in the regular-season finale — possibly a play-in game for Ryan and the team he coached for six seasons.
PREDICTED ORDER: Patriots, Jets, Bills, Dolphins.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU