The Jets lost Aaron Rodgers just minutes into the season, one in which they had real, live Super Bowl aspirations.
The Patriots are still hung over from the conclusion of the Tom Brady era and remain a once-dominant franchise adrift.
That leaves the Bills and the Dolphins to battle it out in the AFC East, which makes Sunday’s first matchup of the season between the two — at 1 p.m. in Orchard Park — as critical as it is fascinating as the division begins to take shape.
The Bills are the three-time defending division champions, but the Dolphins are looking more dominant by the week, fresh off their 70-20 win over the Broncos.
The Bills are 11-2 in their past 13 meetings against the Dolphins and have won seven in a row, including playoffs. In the teams’ last meeting, the Bills beat the Dolphins, 34-31 in the AFC wild-card playoff game in January.
For the Dolphins, it’s very much been about quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who somewhat quietly has gone 17-6 in his past 23 starts. Buffalo’s Josh Allen has, for the past couple of years, been considered the class of the division among the quarterbacks. That’s been shifting to Tagovailoa of late.
Tagovailoa is leading a Miami offense that ranks first in the league in nearly every key category, including points (43.3), total yards (550.3), yards rushing (188.3) and yards passing per game (362.0). Surely, those numbers have been skewed because of the historic blowout of Denver last week, but still.
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel has noticed the change in Tagovailoa’s command of the team and his confidence.
“He’s starting to see the power that he holds at that position,” McDaniel told reporters this past week. “When you are in charge of giving the play and executing each and every play with ball-handling and assignments, what it can do for teammates. I think he’s very much leaning into and enjoying that more.”
Tagovailoa is well aware of the Bills dominance over his team and said this week, “We’ve gotta beat these guys.’’
Tagovailoa is second in the NFL with 1,024 yards passing and leads the league in yards per pass (10.1) and passer rating (121.9). A big factor has been his protection. He has been hit just five times and sacked once on 105 drop backs.
As good as Tagovailoa has been, running back Raheem Mostert, who has 269 all-purpose yards in the past two games, might be the Dolphins’ hottest player. He scored four TDs last week against the Broncos.
For the Bills, linebacker Matt Milano has had a strong start to the season with two interceptions and 17 tackles in three games. His speed will be critical in stopping the speed of the Miami skill position players.
Buffalo’s top cornerback Tre’Davious White will have a load to deal with in Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill, who’s second in the NFL with 412 receiving yards. Hill has combined for 28 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown in five regular-season meetings against Buffalo. In three playoff meetings, though, he has 27 catches for 391 yards and a TD.
A factor in the Buffalo secondary are reports that starting safety Jordan Poyer won’t play because of a knee injury and that Damar Hamlin will make his first regular-season appearance since he sustained a cardiac arrest Jan. 2 against the Bengals.
Hamlin played in all three of the Bills’ preseason games but has been inactive for Buffalo’s first three games. In the preseason, Hamlin had 73 defensive snaps and 19 special teams plays.
The Dolphins — who are ranked first in the NFL in scoring, overall offense as well as passing and rushing offense — are seeking their first 4-0 start since 1995, and a seventh time in team history. They’ve outscored opponents 130-71 this season, the largest point margin in the NFL.
Their 70-point, 726-yard performance against Denver last week broke or tied 13 franchise records and was tied for the third-most points ever in an NFL game.