NFL division preview: AFC East

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) drops back to attempt a pass against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium.
Safid Deen
USA TODAY Sports Plus

A young quarterback quartet leads the AFC East this year, and seeing how they each progress (or not) will be exciting to watch.

USA TODAY Sports+ examines each division prior to kickoff of the 2021 NFL season. And there's plenty of intrigue surrounding this unique year, which features 17 games after the NFL expanded its regular season for the first time since 1978.

The playoffs will begin the weekend of Jan. 15 and Los Angeles will host Super Bowl LVI Feb. 13, 2022.

Now, let's get into it.

Looking for a different division preview? AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC WestNFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West

AFC East

Team to beat? Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen and the Bills fell one game short of the Super Bowl last season and appear most primed to challenge Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC crown again in 2021.

Allen was one of the NFL’s most improved players in 2020, finishing second in MVP voting while setting single-season franchise records in passing yards (4,544), touchdowns (37) and completions (396). He led the Bills to a 13-3 record during the regular season and their first division championship since 1995.

With Allen running offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense again and star receiver Stefon Diggs in tow for his second season in Buffalo, the Bills are the clear-cut favorite in the AFC East.

MORE:Bill-ief sky-high in Buffalo with majority of starters back

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) passes the ball against the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter at Highmark Stadium.

Team on the rise? Miami Dolphins

It’s Year 3 for coach Brian Flores and Year 2 for starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. 

Tagovailoa worked this offseason to refine his physique following a gruesome hip injury suffered during his college days, and he delivered a strong showing in two appearances this preseason. Tagovailoa’s physical improvements have translated to greater confidence and a firm grasp of the new Dolphins offense.

The Dolphins were 10-6 in 2020, falling one game short of the postseason, thanks to the Bills. And Miami will start its season with division foes New England and Buffalo, hoping to get off to a fast start in 2021.

MORE:Can Tua-led Dolphins end their long playoff win drought?

Team with some intrigue? New England Patriots

Rookie quarterback Mac Jones provides much of the intrigue surrounding the Patriots this season. Jones was selected with the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL draft and was essentially named New England's starter two weeks before the season when Cam Newton was released

Future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick wasted no time deciding Jones was ready to assume the role that comes with high expectations two seasons after Tom Brady left New England.

The Patriots also spent the most money this offseason in free agency, signing tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, as well as defensive end Matthew Judon. The revamped Patriots hope their roster additions translate to a return to the playoffs one season after New England broke an 11-year playoff streak.

RELATED: Patriots players believe in starting QB Mac Jones, a rookie: 'He plays like a vet'

Team with ground to make up? New York Jets

The Jets are in Phase 1 of their rebuilding effort under new coach Robert Saleh and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, the No. 2 pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

Saleh is one of the NFL’s most respected young coaches, credited with helping the San Francisco 49ers reach the Super Bowl in 2019 thanks to his standout defense. As Saleh lays his foundation with the Jets, he must also work to temper expectations surrounding Wilson, the BYU product who even received some comparisons to Patrick Mahomes during the draft process.

Wilson replaced former Jets starter Sam Darnold, a cautionary tale for the 2018 No. 3 draft pick that is now gone after three seasons.

KEEP GOING:Saleh changed Jets' vibe, but now it must transfer to field