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Bills still reign atop the AFC East, but Jets and Tua’s Dolphins are on the hunt

MIAMI HERALD VIA AP
                                Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sets up to pass on Saturday.
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MIAMI HERALD VIA AP

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sets up to pass on Saturday.

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills were considered Super Bowl favorites by many a year ago, the reigning kings of the AFC East with loads of playmakers on both sides of the football.

Things have changed a bit since another playoff disappointment ended their season.

The Bills are still talented and dangerous, but are no longer viewed by some as the class of their conference. And maybe not even their own division.

“Whooooo cares?” Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “Who cares?”

Well, people who like to make predictions, of course.

And those who see the New York Jets getting Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback as a potential shift in power in the AFC East.

“We embrace being a team that may have a target on its back,” Jets coach Robert Saleh acknowledged.

Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins are banking on a healthy Tua Tagovailoa keeping them playoff contenders. And Bill Belichick is still in charge of the New England Patriots, who are looking to bounce back from their second losing season in three years.

Then there are the Bills, who have three straight division titles, but aren’t the fashionable pick they once were to reach the Super Bowl out of the AFC.

“There are people that sit at their desk, eat Twinkies and eat all type of stuff, order DoorDash and never been on a football field,” Dawkins said. “Some have. Respect it, but who cares? I don’t care.

“Like, look, bro, we’re in the now. You can honestly only focus on the now.”

And block out outside opinions.

“We don’t have to be your favorite,” Dawkins said, “but we’re going to be our favorite and we’re going to win games.”

But how many will it take to claim the AFC East? The Jets, Dolphins and Patriots are improved, making the division potentially one of the toughest in the NFL.

“If you’re trying to actually get to the AFC championship, if you’re trying to win the AFC championship, if you’re trying to win the Super Bowl, all those things, you better be a very good team and battle tested,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. “And our division should help us do that, but it’s going to be stressful.”

MR. RODGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD

Since being acquired from Green Bay in April after 18 seasons with the Packers, Rodgers has embraced the Big Apple spotlight.

The four-time NFL MVP has made it clear he came to New York to win. While he insists he’ll be with the Jets multiple years, Rodgers believes they have the talent to not only snap their 12-year postseason drought — the longest active skid in the NFL — but make a deep run through the playoffs.

“You want to be a part of a place that has high expectations and there is a lot of positivity around here, which I think is a good thing,” Rodgers said. “It’s a long season, it’s a journey.”

And it’ll begin when the Jets host the Bills on “Monday Night Football” to open the season on Sept. 11.

BUFFALO BOUNCEBACK

The Bills are coming off a 13-3 regular season, with their three losses by a combined eight points. Their season ended with their latest playoff flop, a 27-10 loss to Cincinnati in the AFC divisional round.

They might have also led the league in dealing with adversity.

In May 2022, the team and city were rocked by a racially motivated supermarket shooting that left 10 Black people dead. Two games were affected by major snowstorms that had the Bills scrambling. And there were a few significant injuries, including safety Damar Hamlin going into cardiac arrest and needing to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati.

“Those experiences you take with you from a learning standpoint and a wisdom standpoint,” coach Sean McDermott said. “Whether it’s Damar’s situation or many other things that we went through, I think it makes you stronger as you go forward.”

PROTECTING HIMSELF

Much of Miami’s success will hinge on the success of Tagovailoa, the fourth-year quarterback who was diagnosed with two concussions last year.

Tagovailoa bulked up in the offseason and trained in the martial art of jiu-jitsu to better protect himself.

He has already put that training into practice during the preseason by rolling on the ground after a hit — helping prevent his helmet from striking the turf.

“Everything that I did this offseason entailed to what would keep me on the field for the entirety of the season,” said Tagovailoa, who set career highs with 3,548 yards passing and 25 TDs in 13 starts. “We understand that freaky things can happen. It’s football. It’s a physical sport. Not everything that you prepare for is what you’re going to get. So, I did the best that I could to get myself ready and prepped for this season, as far as injuries go.”

RETURN OF THE MAC

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones’ development took a step back last year, so Belichick brought back former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to replace Matt Patricia and try to get Jones headed back on the right path.

New England also tried to give Jones more playmakers at receiver, including adding Juju Smith-Schuster.

Jones will essentially be playing for his long-term future this season. Either the Patriots will feel content they have their quarterback or will have to search for the next person to replace Tom Brady.

“I just think overall, he’s a way better quarterback,” safety Adrian Phillips said of Jones. “He took last year on the chin. He’ll be the first one to tell you that’s not how he wanted to play. … He’s coming out here every single day and he’s trying to light our defense up. Like, literally, light us up. I’m talking bombs, anything that he can do. You just love to see that.”

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

Bills, Jets, Dolphins, Patriots.

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