FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- After an offseason in which the New England Patriots' three AFC East rivals all made bold, aggressive moves -- and the Patriots themselves had more high-profile defections than additions -- the question was asked: Had the gap finally closed in the division?
Miami paid big bucks for defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Buffalo hired Rex Ryan as head coach and traded for running back LeSean McCoy. New York hired Todd Bowles as head coach and revamped its secondary with the high-priced acquisition of free-agent cornerback Darrelle Revis.
As all three teams appeared to be building momentum, the Patriots seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.
Revis was gone. So was fellow cornerback Brandon Browner. Running back Shane Vereen, who saved his best for last in the Super Bowl, was also heading elsewhere. So was defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. All the while, quarterback Tom Brady was fighting his four-game suspension, giving hope to division rivals that perhaps there was an opening to seize.
It all made for good sports-radio banter, but as we have arrived at Week 7 of the 2015 regular season, the reality is that despite all that change, things have essentially stayed the same: It's still the Patriots (5-0) and then everyone else.
Now comes the critical stretch for the Patriots to ensure things remain on that course.
Bill Belichick's bunch has two AFC East games in a span of five days, both at home -- against the Jets on Sunday and then versus the Dolphins on Thursday, Oct. 29. If the Patriots take care of business, they'll improve to 3-0 in division games, with their final AFC East matchups on Nov. 23 at home against the Bills and then in the final two games of the season at the Jets and at the Dolphins -- and there are questions as to whether those teams will still have something to play for at that point.
That scheduling dynamic further highlights the importance of the Patriots' next two games.
Consider these numbers: The Patriots have won 11 division titles and have 11 playoff berths since realignment in 2002, the most in the NFL. And since the start of 2001, the Patriots are 68-19 in regular-season AFC East games, the best intradivision record in the league over that span.
Are the Jets (4-1), Dolphins (2-3) or Bills (3-3) in position to change that in 2015?
Those teams all had lofty expectations entering this season, but the Patriots are the ones in first place and remain the team to beat. If those teams are going to make their move on the Patriots, this is the time to do it.