New England tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates a touchdown catch in front of Pittsburgh Steelers safeties Ryan Clark, back left, and Troy Polamalu (43) last Sunday in Foxborough, Mass.
NEW YORK — These aren’t the same New England Patriots everyone’s used to seeing.
Sure, it’s still Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but who are those receivers? And, with all the injuries, who are some of those guys on defense?
Well, it doesn’t matter.
The Patriots are still the class of the AFC East, despite new faces all around the field and a few key players out for the season with injuries. At 7-2, it appears New England is heading for its 10th division title in 11 years.
It’s a remarkable stretch that could be capped by one of Belichick’s best coaching jobs. Think about it: Brady’s top receivers are Julian Edelman, oft-injured Danny Amendola, rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, and a just recently returned Rob Gronkowski. The defense has also had to deal with season-ending injuries to Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, and top cornerback Aqib Talib has been sidelined nearly a month.
“I feel like the players have worked hard this year,” Belichick said. “We have a lot of football left, a lot of big games.”
It seems as though the real race in the division is for second place, currently held by Rex Ryan’s surprising Jets (5-4). Despite alternating wins and losses with up-and-down rookie quarterback Geno Smith, New York is very much in the playoff hunt.
So are the Miami Dolphins (4-4), who will have to overcome an ugly harassment case in which the league is investigating the relationship between suspended guard Richie Incognito and offensive linemate Jonathan Martin.
“We’re not really going through too much as a team,” defensive lineman Jared Odrick said, “other than trying to win football games.”
Things are looking up a bit for the Buffalo Bills (3-6), who are getting rookie quarterback EJ Manuel back from a sprained right knee. Manuel has missed four weeks and the Bills have struggled after having to start undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel and journeyman Thad Lewis in his place.
Here are five things to know about the AFC East going into the second half:
FANTASTIC FINISH: It’s difficult to imagine the Patriots not ending up on top again, not with a two-game lead. But the NFL’s schedule makers provided a bit of intrigue for the second half.
In December, the Dolphins play each of their AFC East rivals, including the Jets twice. Miami is at New York in Week 13, then hosts New England in Week 15 and is at Buffalo the following week. If New York and Miami keep pace with each other, Week 17 could be the equivalent of a play-in game as the Jets are at the Dolphins to wrap up the regular season.
BRADY’S BUNCH: Brady is having one of his more underwhelming seasons with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions, but provided a reminder of just how dominant he can be last Sunday. With Gronkowski and Amendola on the field together and healthy, Brady threw for over 400 yards and four touchdowns in a 55-31 rout of Pittsburgh. Brady’s first two TD tosses? To Amendola and Gronkowski.
Shane Vereen might be back soon from a broken left wrist, bolstering the Patriots’ backfield and providing Brady with another playmaker.
Just what the rest of the division needs.
JEKYLL-AND-HYDE JETS: They win one, then lose one. Win one and lose one. And, repeat.
They joined the 2005 Patriots as the only teams to alternate wins and losses through their first nine games, but they know they need to start ripping off some wins — consecutively — if they still plan to make the playoffs.
New York holds the No. 6 spot in the AFC race, an improbable position considering many had the Jets ranked among the NFL’s worst heading into the season. Smith has also gone back and forth between game-winning performances and turnover-filled disappointments while trying to establish himself as the future of the franchise.
DOLPHINS IN TURMOIL: Some considered Miami to be the one team capable of knocking New England from the top of the division, but second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins have been inconsistent.
Now, they’re dealing with a situation that has rocked the NFL as Martin left the team last week because of emotional issues, while Incognito was suspended indefinitely last Sunday by coach Joe Philbin for his treatment of Martin.
On the field, Miami is trying to build off a 22-20 overtime victory over Cincinnati that ended a four-game skid and was the Dolphins’ first win in 39 days.
BILLS BOUNCEBACK?: Buffalo was off to a 2-2 start before Manuel was injured for the second time in two months. He’s coming back, and the schedule is favorable, too, with the Bills’ remaining opponents combining for a 20-38 record, including back-to-back matchups with currently winless Tampa Bay and Jacksonville in December.
But with six losses already, the Bills might need to go 6-1 the rest of the way to even have a shot at the postseason. Otherwise, the NFL’s longest active playoff drought will reach 14 seasons.
PREDICTED WINNER: Patriots.
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