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AFC East Roundup: X-factors will be key to playoff push

When opponents key on the AFC East’s top options, these players must step up

Cleveland Browns v Buffalo Bills Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

To say it was a memorable weekend for the AFC East would be an understatement, even with the Miami Dolphins watching Week 11 unfold while on their bye. The Buffalo Bills adeptly maneuvered through 77 inches of snow to fly out for a “home” game at Ford Field in Detroit, MI. The home of the Detroit Lions provided a cozy space for the Bills to fend off the Cleveland Browns. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots and New York Jets squared off in a defensive slugfest—or, as I like to call it, an offensive struggle. The outcome was in doubt until the Patriots returned a punt for a touchdown with six seconds left in regulation. For the AFC East teams in action during Week 11, x-factors played a huge role in deciding who won. With the division too close to call as December approaches let’s take a look at x-factors who can make a difference for each team.

The Buffalo Bills finally deployed their KnoX-Factor against the Browns

For the Bills, Dawson Knox appears to wear the x-factor badge quite well. Knox has become a reliable target for quarterback Josh Allen over the past two seasons, but until Sunday he hadn’t seen such a profound role yet in 2022. The KnoX-Factor set a career high in receptions with seven grabs (on seven targets) and 70 yards against the Browns. In recent weeks, Knox has become a checkdown security blanket for Allen while the wide receivers head vertically down the field. But make no mistake—Knox also has the ability to stretch the field himself as evidenced by his 23-yard reception in the second half. What makes Knox such a great checkdown target is that he has the strength to usually drive through the first tackler to pick up added yards. If Buffalo can get him going consistently then it will free up Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis down the field.

Jeff Wilson Jr. quickly takes up mantle as Miami Dolphins’ x-factor

The Dolphins have plenty of weapons on offense in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle but to free up those receivers there has to be an x-factor to keep defenses from cheating their way. For Miami, that’s running back Jeff Wilson Jr., who the team just traded for a couple of weeks ago right at the trade deadline. Head coach Mike McDaniel is no stranger to getting the most out of Wilson, having coached him when they were both with the San Francisco 49ers. In two games with the Dolphins, he’s tallied 26 carries while catching passes a handful of times in each matchup. By getting Wilson and the running game going, it will open up the play-action passing attack down the field for those deadly receivers. It’s also important that teams don’t sleep on running back Raheem Mostert, who has a similar skill set to Wilson but has slipped behind him on the depth chart.

The Patriots continue winning with the help of Matthew Judon’s fantastic play

New England is starting to hit its stride winning five out of their last six games. Granted, only two of those wins were against teams with a winning record (both the Jets) but that’s a discussion for a different day. If the Patriots want to keep their streak alive, then a lot of the pressure on defense will fall on linebacker Matthew Judon—the team’s best pass rusher, and a true x-factor on defense. When Judon gets to the quarterback or is at least able to apply pressure, New England’s defense has a good day. On Sunday, Judon was in the backfield most of the afternoon, while picking up 1.5 sacks. Since the start of October, Judon has pulled down 10 sacks and he currently leads the league with 13 sacks overall. The Patriots have a lot of mobile quarterbacks ahed on the schedule, such as Kyler Murray and twice facing Josh Allen. For New England to be competitive in these games, Judon will need to make his presence felt.

A new x-factor must emerge before the Jets’ season unravels

There’s no disputing the lack of game-breaking play from the New York Jets since rookie running back Breece Hall was lost for the season. The Jets have struggled to put points on the board in several games this season, notably in six games where the offense failed to score more than 17 points. In those matchups, the Jets are just 2-4. Hall isn’t coming back until next season, so the Jets need running back James Robinson to step up in his place. Robinson was tradedfrom the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Jets following Hall’s season-ending ACL injury. In his three games since arriving in New Jersey, Robinson has only managed 75 yards on 35 carries. On Sunday, he had a disappointing afternoon with 10 yards on seven carries. With the struggles that quarterback Zach Wilson is trying to work through, the Jets need a strong running game to take some pressure off Wilson and the passing game.