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"It's an entirely different division" | A tight AFC East race is anyone's for the taking in December


For the first time since 2008, all AFC East teams are above .500 heading into Week 13 and the unexpected competitiveness of the division, which is 1 of 2 divisions where every team has a winning record, might come as a surprise to many.

"It's an entirely different division, a much better division than I ever thought it was going to be," Judy Battista, NFL Network's Senior National columnist, said. "We all thought the AFC West was going to be this division like nothing we've ever seen before and instead, it's the AFC East that seems to be the power division in the conference."

Before the season started Senior NFL Writer for The Boston Globe Ben Volin viewed the AFC East as a "one-horse race". But the unexpected success of the Dolphins and Jets — and the Patriots who still lurk in the Wild Card race — has since swayed how Volin looks at the division as the calendar switches to December.

"I thought it was Buffalo's division and everybody else was fighting for second place," Volin said. "Maybe the Jets would be a little more competitive this year, but wasn't expecting much out of them and wasn't quite sure what to make of the Dolphins … Now I think entering Week 13 and the home stretch after Thanksgiving, it's a three-horse race and it's everyone but New England."

The 8-3 Bills, who are still looking for their first division win, hold second place behind the 8-3 Miami Dolphins who are 2-1 in the division. Not too far behind are the New York Jets (7-4; 2-2) and the New England Patriots (6-5; 2-1). After encountering the Dolphins and Jets earlier in the season, and seeing the potential of the Patriots, LB Von Miller has sensed that the division has been tough all year.

"I think (with) some of the offseason moves, you can see it starting to get better," Miller said. "The Jets are definitely not the same Jets team that they've been over the last couple of years. The Miami Dolphins as well. The New England Patriots, they've put together some great games this season. It's competitive. I don't think it's all of a sudden though."

But one thing that hasn't changed for any NFL team since the season started is the importance of winning the division — which is where Michael Smith, an analyst for Amazon Prime Video's Thursday Night Football coverage, feels the Bills' upcoming 3-game divisional stretch is crucial in securing the top spot.

"It's critical because they're division opponents, but also critical because after Thanksgiving is when you want to be peaking and you want to be hitting your stride going into the playoffs," Smith said. "Those two things happen to coincide, those goals of playing the best ball and winning the division. So, it's a good time to really check those boxes right now."

Buffalo's next three

The remaining six weeks of the season can make or break everybody fighting for a playoff spot — especially for the Bills who are set to face all three divisional opponents in the next three weeks. As the standings begin to constantly fluctuate, every win matters from here on out.

"It's huge, just for figuring out who we want to be as a football team," Bills guard Ryan Bates said. "It comes down to this stretch of, do we want to be first in the AFC? Do we want the No. 1 seed? It's just putting our boots on the ground and just going to work."

First up, the Bills will travel to Foxborough for their first meeting of the season with the New England Patriots for Thursday Night Football. The Bills look to earn their third straight win at New England, something the franchise hasn't since the Jim Kelly era.

Now even though QB Tom Brady is out of the picture, the talent is still there in all three phases in the eyes of Michael Smith. QB Mac Jones is capable of winning big games in pressure situations, the league's sack leader LB Matt Judon is dangerous on defense, and they're almost always solid on special teams.

"You always have to respect the Patriots, especially in Foxborough," Smith said. "As long as Bill Belichick is on the sideline, no matter who's calling the plays, no matter who's running the plays, you gotta bring a game. You gotta be ready because as soon as you write them off, they're back in the mix."

"This a huge test for the Patriots," Battista added. "This is a game, they really have to win, or they'll really be sort of stuck in the mud there with playoff situations."

The following week, the Bills welcome the New York Jets to Highmark Stadium. The Bills fell just short of the Jets 20-17 back in Week 9, but they might be up against a new QB when the Jets come to town.

Last week, the decision was made to sit Zach Wilson and start Mike White for the first time this season against the Chicago Bears . While White and the Jets came away with the win, they have a tough road matchup ahead of them with the 9-2 Minnesota Vikings. And for a team that hasn't been in the playoffs since 2010, Battista feels they have to go for the opening that's right in front of them and roll with White.

"It's hard to imagine that they would put Mike White back on the bench as long as he performs the way he performed last week," Battista said. "There's just no way you pull the plug on that as this is a team that's trying to get to playoffs. If he can play at that level and if the Jets are winning, I don't know how you make a change again."

For the second half of a back-to-back home stint, the Miami Dolphins will travel to Buffalo in Week 15. The two teams met in Miami in the third week of the season where the Dolphins and the Miami heat came away with a 21-19 win over the Bills. Now the question is raised of whether or not the Dolphins can handle the pressure of Bills territory. But after coming on more quickly than expected, Battista feels that it's possible.

"I thought they would be good, but I think that the marriage of the new head coach and Tua (Tagovailoa) certainly helped," Battista said. "And then of course, the addition of Tyreek Hill has absolutely added jet fuel to them. They have just taken off in a way that I guess I didn't think was going to happen quite as quickly."

As far as the AFC East goes, the Dolphins are a favorite for Smith given their record, especially in the division. But looking ahead to February, he's still going with the Bills, especially if Von Miller can get healthy and return to action.

"If I had to pick an AFC East team for the Super Bowl, Buffalo would still be the one that I would be most worried about come playoff time," Smith said.

Battista feels that now is the time when the Bills have to start playing their best football as she still believes the Bills are a team that has the talent levels to make what should be a deep run in January. And the way they've been able to grind out their last two wins under unusual circumstances speaks volumes about the team.

"It sort of says something about the mental toughness and that's what you lean on now," Battista said. "You've only got a handful of games left, just get through it and get into the playoffs. Once you're in the playoffs as we've seen, anything can happen. I feel like they are well-positioned, and they're well-coached. I think Sean (McDermott) is very good at sort of like putting the blinders on and just getting fit for these games."

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