No, Dan Shaughnessy, the AFC East Is Not a ‘Tomato Can Division’

It's time to put one of the laziest narratives in sports to bed.

Three things are guaranteed in this life: death, taxes and lazy sports columnists telling Patriots fans the AFC East is a pushover division.

This week, one curly haired provocateur dusted off his seemingly annual “AFC East is a cakewalk” piece with all the trimmings and “tomato can” jokes we’ve come to expect over the years. This contrived storyline places the Patriots in a scenario in which they simply cannot win. Either they win the division for the 13th time in 15 years and receive no credit for doing so, given the sorry state of the division, or they fall short, to our great disappointment and confusion.

Yes, the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, and perennial laughingstock New York Jets are inferior to the Pats. But what Dan Shaughnessy and the other pundits who peddle this narrative fail to mention is this: So is everybody else.

Tom Brady has won 79 percent of his games against AFC East opponents. Impressive as that is, it’s only the fourth-highest winning percentage Brady has against a division. He’s won 80 percent of his games against the AFC North, 83 percent against the NFC East, and a whopping 88 percent against the NFC North.

With Bill Belichick and Brady at the helm, it’s safe to say the Patriots would dominate in any division. The winning percentage of the AFC East clubs who have not won the division over the last 14 years—since Brady was named starting quarterback—is far from the lowest in the league. Entering this season, the AFC East winning percentage excluding division winners was .433, higher than the AFC South (.421), AFC West (.410), NFC North (.408), and NFC West (.408). The AFC East has produced six wild card teams in that period as well, which is one more than the AFC West and the same as the NFC West and NFC South.

Perhaps AFC East’s less-than-deserved “tomato can” reputation can be attributed to the instability that permeates the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins. These three teams have cycled through 20 different head coaches since Bill Belichick took the reins in New England, and have started 39 different QBs since Brady was anointed the starter. (That number increases to 40 if you count Harvard grad Ryan Fitzpatrick twice, who now starts for the Jets after a stint in Buffalo.)

Make no mistake, none of those three teams have any chance of challenging the Patriots until they get their quarterback situations figured out. The Bills might be riding high with a recharged Rex Ryan and stout defensive line, but their starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a sixth-round draft pick who hadn’t started an NFL game prior to this season. Ryan Tannehill has improved in each of his three years with the Dolphins, but it’s still too early to tell with him.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Patriots should roll to another division title this season. But the numbers say the “tomato can” AFC East has nothing to do with it, convenient narratives be damned.