NEW YORK (CBSMiami/AP) — Games against division opponents are always circled on the calendar.
The AFC East got a lot more entertaining with one wacky, drama-filled offseason.
Rex Ryan brought his bluster to Buffalo. The New York Jets cleaned house, welcomed home one of the franchise's best players and saw their quarterback socked in the jaw by a teammate. Miami paid big bucks to bolster an already dominant defensive line by bringing aboard Ndamukong Suh.
And then there's the New England Patriots.
The defending Super Bowl champions' offseason was filled with talk of deflated footballs, lawsuits and Tom Brady's four-game suspension for his role in the "Deflategate" scandal.
With all of those distractions, could this be the year someone else sits atop the division at the end of the season? After all, the Patriots have won 12 of the last 14 division titles.
"At this time of year, there's a lot of optimism around the NFL for a lot of different teams," said Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets GM who's now the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations. "But I can tell you with certainty the difference between our optimism and the other 31 (teams) is our optimism is earned."
Ryan can appreciate that kind of confidence. After being fired by the Jets as coach after six years, he found a home in Western New York. He's already a fan favorite, blowing into town with the types of bold declarations and promises that always made headlines in New York City.
"This ain't the honeymoon period," Ryan said. "The honeymoon period's coming, and I truly believe that. I truly believe there's going to be such great days ahead of us that the true honeymoon period is getting ready to take place."
The Bills have certainly improved, and so have the Dolphins and Jets. But the question remains, if Brady sits out four games or not, whether any of them will be able to dethrone the Patriots.
Here are a few things to know about the AFC East:
BRADY'S STATUS: The Patriots went into their final preseason week still uncertain if Brady will be available for their regular-season opener on Sept. 10 against Pittsburgh.
If he isn't, it will be in the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo, who's in his second season as Brady's backup.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld a four-game suspension of Brady after concluding he was part of a conspiracy by Patriots equipment employees to deflate balls to gain a competitive advantage. Brady and the NFL Players Association filed a lawsuit in late July to overturn the suspension and were still awaiting a ruling.
A Brady-less first four games — vs. Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Jacksonville and at Dallas — could set the tone for Bill Belichick's Patriots, as well as the rest of the division.
DANGEROUS DOLPHINS: Suh was signed to a six-year, $114 million contract, and will team up with four-time Pro Bowl selection Cameron Wake on one of the league's toughest and sack-happy defensive lines.
But the success of coach Joe Philbin's team likely rests on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who received a $96 million contract extension that runs through 2020. Tannehill threw for a career-high 4,045 yards and 27 touchdowns last season, with a career-low 12 interceptions while possibly bringing stability to a position that has seen 17 quarterbacks since the days of Dan Marino ended in 1999.
JETS' TURBULENCE: With new GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles, New York made a splash in the offseason by signing cornerback Darrelle Revis, who played for the Jets from 2007-12, trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and drafting defensive lineman Leonard Williams in the first round.
The positive feelings were tempered by some negative news. Star defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson was suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, then was charged with resisting arrest 12 days later and could face further discipline from the league.
The biggest blow came to quarterback Geno Smith's jaw, broken by a punch from linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali. Smith is likely out at least the first four games, so the job is now veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick's to hold — or lose.
REX IN EFFECT: Ryan has re-energized a franchise that has the longest playoff drought at 15 years, and helped the Bills sell a franchise-record 60,000-plus season tickets.
The Bills' biggest roster moves included acquiring running back LeSean McCoy in a trade with Philadelphia, adding controversial guard Richie Incognito, bringing in wide receiver Percy Harvin, and re-signing defensive end-linebacker Jerry Hughes.
But like during much of his time with the Jets, Ryan is still trying to figure out who his quarterback is, with disappointing EJ Manuel, veteran Matt Cassel and dynamic Tyrod Taylor all in the mix.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Bills.
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