FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — First is also worst right now in the unpredictably equal AFC East.
The New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are all 3-3, a rare logjam this far into the season that has coaches and players unsure if they should be happy or concerned — or both.
“It’s good news, bad news,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “Let’s face it, we’re tied for first in our division, so that’s great. We’re also tied for last. It’s a little depressing.”
Since the NFL merger in 1970, this marks only the fourth time every team in a division has the same record after Week 6 or later, and first since the AFC East was knotted up at 5-5 after Week 10 in 1987, according to STATS LLC. The division was also all tied up at 4-4 in Week 8 that same season — but things were already a bit wacky because one week was canceled because of a players strike, and Weeks 4-6 were played mostly by replacements.
The only other time it has happened was in the AFC Central after Week 9 in 1985.
“It’s crazy,” Jets tight end Dustin Keller said. “The whole division is just crazy right now.”
The gridiron gridlock will clear a bit this weekend, though, with the Jets and Patriots set for a division showdown at Foxborough. The Bills host the Tennessee bye-week break.
“At this point going forward, they’re all going to be important (games) and the thing about football is the next game is always more important than the previous game in the NFL,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. “So a division opponent is critical.”
Next weekend should shake things up a little more with Buffalo off, New England playing St. Louis in London, and New York hosting Miami in another AFC East matchup.
“I guess the old saying about the parity in the NFL is true, at least through six weeks of the NFL season,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “I really haven’t watched that. I don’t go home and watch a lot of football. I don’t really study other teams. I’m more focused on our own (team and) where we’re at. I think it just speaks to the, at this stage, the parity that exists, especially in the AFC.”
Some might say it’s a clear display of mediocrity in the division — the AFC Least, some are calling it — with no teams standing out nearly halfway into the season.
But then again, it’s not just the AFC East. Eleven of the 32 NFL teams have 3-3 records, including Green Bay, which is No. 7 in the AP Pro32 NFL Power Rankings and Buffalo, ranked 24th. What’s more, 20 teams are at .500 or better — and that doesn’t even include Pittsburgh, Detroit or Dallas, all at 2-3.
“It looks like the NFL has achieved what they set out to do,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “You hope there’s parity and people have to fight their way to the top and that’s what you try to do. It looks like it’s worked out.”
Despite having three losses, Bill Belichick’s bunch isn’t far from being undefeated. Four points, to be exact.
The Patriots lost to Arizona 20- 18 in Week 2 and 31-30 to Baltimore the following week, followed last Sunday by a 24-23 last-minute stunner in Seattle.
“The season’s still early,” wide receiver Deion Branch said. “That’s why you have to just take advantage of the games that you have at hand. We all can sit back and say we let a few slip through our hands, which we did. But it is what it is. We’re 3-3 and now we just got to move forward and try not to allow those things to happen again so that we won’t find ourselves in this position down the road.”
It’s unfamiliar territory for the Patriots, who lost only three times in the regular season a year ago on their way to going to the Super Bowl. They also went 14-2 the previous year, so three losses through six games has raised some eyebrows.
“They’re usually a lot better than that at this point in the year,” Keller said. “But they could turn around at any moment, so we have to be playing our ‘A’ game, otherwise we won’t be able to pull it off.”
Ryan has already declared that he thinks the Jets will go to New England and beat the Patriots on Sunday — a bold statement considering many were wondering a week ago if New York’s season was about to spiral out of control. All the talk centered on the quarterbacks as Mark Sanchez struggled and many called for the popular Tim Tebow to get more playing time or maybe supplant him as the starter.
A dominant 35-9 win over Andrew Luck has tempered all that talk, for a week at least. The Jets are 2-0 in the division and in this position despite losing arguably their two biggest playmakers to season-ending injuries in cornerback Darrelle Revis and wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
“You knew it was going to be a slugfest all the way,” Ryan said. “Really, it’s a 10-game season now. Whoever comes out of it the best will win our division. We’re going to keep slugging.”
Miami, the only team other than New England to win the AFC East in the last nine seasons (in 2008), started off shaky this season with a 30-10 loss to Houston, but nearly pulled off victories in its other two losses. The Dolphins missed a field goal in regulation and then overtime before losing to the Jets 23-20 in Week 3, and then lost by another field goal in overtime the following week at Arizona.
So, a few more breaks and the Dolphins could be 5-1 — with a rookie head coach in Philbin and rookie quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.
“I can remember answering questions about how we can salvage the season, and now you look a couple weeks later and we’re tied for first place,” running back Reggie Bush said. “That’s the way it goes. That’s why we love this league so much because every Sunday is extremely vital. … It’s hard to win games in this league. I don’t care if you’ve beaten the worst team or the best team — a win is a win no matter how you get it.”
Buffalo is 0-2 in the division after blowout losses to the Jets in the season opener and the Patriots three weeks later. But the Bills also had convincing victories over Kansas City and Cleveland, and pulled off an overtime win at Arizona last Sunday.
While the .500 record might not have been the objective, the Bills are right in the thick of things — just as they hoped.
“The three games that we lost have felt like we’re a much worse team than 3-3,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “And, so, to be here and also to have the other teams be 3-3 in the AFC East and everybody kind of knotted up, all of a sudden you start looking at it as we’ve got 10 games left to go, and we’ve got a real shot at this thing. We’ve got to come out and play.”
After all, the AFC East is anybody’s — and everybody’s — division to win.
“I think it’s too early in the year to get bent out of shape about it,” Gailey said. “You can’t fall too far behind, as we all know, but at the same time when you’re sitting there, it does, it helps, and you know that you’re in charge of your own destiny.
“When you can be in charge of your own destiny, that’s all you can ask for in this business.”