Gap between Patriots, AFC East rivals in 2017 grows even wider

Taylor loses top weapon in Watkins trade (1:41)

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak explains how QB Tyrod Taylor's critical year will be impacted by losing his top receiver, Sammy Watkins. (1:41)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the 2017 league year officially began in early March, the gap between the New England Patriots and their three AFC East rivals was widely viewed as significant. Five months later, the gap is widening even more.

The Patriots pulled further away on Friday when the Buffalo Bills traded two of their better players -- receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby -- in a move that figures to weaken them in the short-term (though the trade could help the franchise build a more stable and productive long-term picture).

Then there are the Miami Dolphins, who watched their starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill go down with a significant knee injury, forcing them to scramble to sign free agent Jay Cutler. Also, 2017 second-round pick Raekwon McMillan -- who was projected to start at middle linebacker -- reportedly tore his ACL in Thursday night's preseason opener.

Finally, the New York Jets have shed more proven talent than they've gained this year and have a major question mark at the game's most important position: quarterback.

The Patriots' dominance in the division has been well documented. They own a 76-22 record in regular-season AFC East games since the beginning of the 2001 season, the best divisional record of any team in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts (70-28), Green Bay Packers (69-28) and Pittsburgh Steelers (69-31) are next in line.

Furthermore, the Patriots have won the most division titles (13) since the league realigned to eight divisions in 2002, followed by the Colts (9), Packers (9), Seattle Seahawks (8) and Steelers (7).

New England's eight straight division titles is the longest streak in NFL history, surpassing the Los Angeles Rams (1973-79), and based on what has unfolded this year, will anyone put up any significant resistance for No. 9?

That topic was broached in July when it was noted that five of the Patriots' final six games are against division rivals. The general consensus was that the Patriots are the heavy favorite and the schedule likely won't be a factor. Now the scales have been tilted even further in New England's favor.