During New England's two-decade run of dominance beginning in the early 2000s, the AFC East was largely an afterthought. The Patriots being crowned division champions was looked at as automatic rather than a coin flip like it is in most other places in the NFL. But a lot has changed as of late. On top of Tom Brady no longer lining up under center, the rest of the division has finally turned a corner and each team has put themselves in position for a playoff run. 

The Buffalo Bills have been the top dog in the AFC East for the past few years, while the Patriots have taken a step back post-Brady and missed the postseason in two of the last three seasons. Now, Miami is on the rise and the Jets sprung into contention after completing a blockbuster trade for Aaron Rodgers this offseason. All that has given the Patriots an unfamiliar title -- the worst team in the division (at least on paper). New England has the lowest odds to win the AFC East at Caesars Sportsbook, but owner Robert Kraft is optimistic about his team's prospects for this coming year while also acknowledging how tough the division is shaping up to be. 

"I liked our draft this year, and I hope that translates on the field," Kraft said Thursday at the annual Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards luncheon, via "I know the guys are working very hard. I think we have the most difficult division in the NFL, the best balance of teams. All the other three teams are good. So we'll have our challenges. But I'm really hopeful about this team."

Not only is the division much better than it's been in the past, but New England's road throughout the regular season is expected to be a gauntlet. The Patriots are tied with the third-toughest schedule in the NFL in 2023 based on their opponent's combined win percentage last season. Kraft's team is slated to face the likes of the Eagles, Cowboys and Chiefs on top of their division rivals. 

The Patriots are coming off an 8-9 season in 2022 that was tumultuous, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Bill Belichick has corrected some of those issues by hiring Bill O'Brien as the offensive coordinator and signing high-upside pass-catchers like wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Mike Gesicki. New England is also slated to host free agent wideout DeAndre Hopkins on a visit, which could give the offense even more top-tier talent to help put them in contention this season. 

As Kraft noted, the Patriots also did make out well in the NFL Draft, selecting some defensive players that could make an impact on Day 1 like first-round corner Christian Gonzalez and defensive end Keion White, who was selected in the second round. 

It'll certainly be an uphill climb for Belichick and his club this coming year, but Kraft does seem to believe there is path for them to be one of the surprise teams of the 2023 season.