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Sans Brady, AFC East turning into a dogfight

Cassel taking over QB reigns in New England (Photo Source)

We all know what the big news has been this week, even in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Bills stunned even their own fan base with a dominant Week 1 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. New England Patriots all-world quarterback Tom Brady, the game's most dominant player, was placed on Injured Reserve after tearing up his knee in his team's opening day victory. The fact that the news about Brady has overshadowed one of the most exciting Bills victories in around four years speaks volumes about what Brady means to the AFC East landscape (not to mention the league in general). With Brady, the Patriots had a stranglehold on the division. Without him, things change tremendously.

But before the Bills - or more prudently for us, their fans - allow their dreams to become too extravagant, let's allow time for a little perspective.

Clearly, the New England Patriots will be a different team with fourth-year backup Matt Cassel attempting to emerge from Brady's monstrous shadow. But to discount them completely from the AFC East would, in time, be a laughable error. The team is brought back down to earth a bit by Brady's loss, but they're still a very formidable opponent. They still have a very good offensive line, the game's best receiver in Randy Moss (who, granted, might pout if Cassel flops), and a veteran defense with a physical front seven. Cassel merely needs to be a solid game manager for this team to be serious contenders in the AFC. They're more than playoff contenders at this point; until someone beats them, they're still the leaders of this division. I'm actually quite jealous that the Jets get the first crack at de-throning the Pats this weekend.

Speaking of the New York Jets, clearly they're a part of the conversation simply because of their own quarterback, Brett Favre. Rome wasn't built in a day, but the Jets took a serious stab at it this off-season, spending money like the Washington Redskins, circa early Daniel Snyder years. Their offensive line is better, but they lacked a certain cohesiveness in edging the Dolphins in Miami on opening day. They're certainly a factor, and they're much better than they were in 2007. Favre's presence makes them the media darlings post-Brady, but to think that the Jets are the heir apparent to New England's throne simply because of Favre is absurd. They're merely contenders and a much improved team.

We know that our Buffalo Bills are serious contenders after their opening day thrashing of Seattle. "Experts" will point to the team's youth at the quarterback position (as well as overall team youth) as a reason that they might be early-season pretenders, but pay those notions no mind - this team's potential is higher than it has been in decades. Sure, there could be stumbling blocks (for instance, no team knows what key injuries can mean better than the Bills), but like the Patriots, to discount Buffalo because of these perceived shortcomings would be very unwise.

Even the Miami Dolphins aren't pushovers. The hapless team that took the field in 2007 has been morphed into a tough, physical team with a smart quarterback and some very good athletes. Even though they're not on the same talent level as the rest of the division, they have the make-up of a team that can play spoiler, wreaking havoc on the playoff hopes of their biggest enemies. The Bills in particular have struggled with Chad Pennington in the past (though this wasn't the case as recent as 2007). To automatically assume six wins between the three "contenders" over the Dolphins is, again, a large and ill-advised assumption to make.

The Patriots won't be as strong, but they'll be strong enough. The Jets and Bills are now serious contenders, and they're more even with the Pats than they have been in years. The Dolphins are better, and while they're probably not serious players, they're not close to being the division doormat that they were in 2007. The landscape in this division is remarkably even, and while we can no longer assume anything about the potential order of finish, it's plausible for the Bills' fan base to dream big. So, in the words of Steven Tyler, "dream on".

I, for one, can't stand the speculation and the potential letdown. I've watched this team for too long to get overly excited, though I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't intrigued by the possibilities. In any event, I'll be making an attempt to preserve my sanity by following the team's "one game at a time" attitude. It's exciting to be in this position after just one game, but ultimately, the Bills still have a lot to prove. They can start proving it this weekend in Jacksonville, so that's where my focus will remain.

AFC East Standings

New England 1 0 0 17 10
New York Jets 1 0 0 20 14
Buffalo 1 0 0 34 10
Miami 0 1 0 14 20

(updated 9.9.2008 at 1:27 AM EDT)