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Reigning champs have rest of AFC East going big, bold this off-season

This off-season gives Bills, Jets, Dolphins hope that they have started closing the gap in AFC East.

Roll this slice of stark football reality around in your head for a while: Since the NFL’s latest divisional realignment occurred in 2002, New England owns almost as many Super Bowl appearances (five) as the rest of the AFC East does combined playoff berths (six). Do you really need to know more than that glaring statistic to understand the whirl of activity that has taken place in the division since the close of the NFL’s 2014 regular season?

It was just five weeks and a day ago that the Patriots barely held off defending champion Seattle to claim their fourth Super Bowl victory of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, but much has transpired this off-season that at least gives the Bills, Jets and Dolphins hope that they have started closing the gap in the league’s least competitive division.   

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So far in 2015, the AFC East is where it’s at. We won’t know for months yet whether all the added star power truly matters on the field, but Buffalo, New York and Miami are clearly trying to strike a blow on behalf of parity, that quaint notion that the NFL likes to pretend is still alive and well in every corner of the league’s map. If only, dreams the rest of the AFC East.

The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999—the league’s longest active—drought and last won the division 20 years ago this season, in 1995. The Dolphins’ most recent playoff team was in 2008, and Miami hasn’t notched a playoff victory since 2000. The Jets haven’t ruled the AFC East since 2002, and are working on a four-year streak of missing the postseason, the franchise’s longest such skid since the six-year span from 1992-97.

[]Little wonder the makeover efforts that the dynasty to the north has inspired. The Patriots wannabes are setting the pace so far this off-season, as a group going as big and bold as anybody in the NFL:

Buffalo and new owner Terry Pegula made the first splash with the hiring of head coach Rex Ryan, who did give the Patriots some fits for a while there early on in his Jets tenure. And the Bills have followed up with the signing of controversial veteran guard Richie Incognito; the blockbuster trade for Eagles running back LeSean McCoy; a trade with Minnesota for potential starting quarterback Matt Cassel; the awarding of a rich new contract to McCoy to entice him to make the jump from Philadelphia ($40 million over five years, with $26.5 million guaranteed); and the key retention of defensive end Jerry Hughes, who has posted consecutive double-digit sack seasons for the Bills. Hughes was set to become one of the more attractive free agents available, but earned a five-year deal that reportedly is worth at least $45 million, with $20 million of that being guaranteed.

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When free agency officially opens on Tuesday—and it’s bound to feel anti-climatic after the frenzy of the league’s three-day legal tampering period—Miami is poised to reel in the biggest fish of all in this year’s free agency class, reportedly landing Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh with a record-breaking six-year, $114 million deal ($60 million guaranteed) that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. Suh won’t save the Dolphins all by himself, but everybody knows pass pressure up the middle is the most proven method of rendering Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a mere mortal.

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The Dolphins are also trying to make some additions by subtraction, and recently have either cut or prepared to cut their losses with a slew of under-productive veterans, including cornerback Cortland Finnegan, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler, and receivers Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson. Still hanging in the balance is the fate of the team’s No. 1 receiver, Mike Wallace, who could be either traded or released if he does not agree to reduce his $12.1 million 2015 salary cap number. Even after Suh signs on, the Dolphins will still have the cap room to continue shopping to fill needs in free agency.

And then there are the Jets, who began their latest reinvention with the hiring of a new management tandem in general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles in January. New York is determined to return to AFC East relevancy and took a step in that direction last week when it took Brandon Marshall off the Bears’ hands in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Marshall comes with an extensive and matching set of baggage that few can trump in the NFL, but he’s a legitimate No. 1 receiver and gives the Jets a much better chance to match up with the Patriots’ secondary twice a year. 

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And those two head-to-head duels will be even more interesting if New York can achieve its ultimate goal this offseason: coaxing elite cornerback Darrelle Revis back into green and white if he and the Patriots cannot come to terms on a new deal. (Revis currently has a $20 million team option and $25 million cap number for 2015.) Reacquiring Revis is the stated goal of Jets owner Woody Johnson, and executing such a move might seriously help New York move the needle in terms of the division’s balance of power.

The Patriots won’t let Revis go without a fight, especially if they think he’s all but assured of landing back in New York, but the Jets have the cash and cap room to more than accommodate him, and are showing they mean business in their effort to upgrade after last season’s 4-12 rock-bottom finish in the division. New York already re-signed one of its key defensive cogs in linebacker Davis Harris, keeping him off the free-agent market, and with the addition of Marshall is expected to cut ties on its failed Percy Harvin experiment in the near future.  

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New England, of course, isn’t merely just sitting around and watching its three division pursuers make up ground. The Patriots lost a long-time defensive stalwart last week when they opted to not pick up 33-year-old Vince Wilfork’s option, but that was expected. New England used some of Wilfork’s scheduled salary to fund an extension for safety Devin McCourty, the team’s most attractive free-agent candidate. After opting to use the franchise tag on kicker Stephen Gostkowski, the Pats on Sunday locked up McCourty with a five-year deal that averages $9.5 million, and makes him the game’s second-highest paid safety behind Seattle’s Earl Thomas.   

New England now shifts its full focus to Revis and keeping the secondary intact that helped it win its first Super Bowl title in 10 long years. Even without Revis, the Patriots will be the prohibitive favorites in the division once again this year, with the Bills and Jets still grappling with quarterback issues and the Dolphins trying again to both break out of a .500 rut and re-energize a fan base that had precious little reason to believe in the past decade-plus.    

But two new coaches, and a bevy of star-wattage talent joining the division in a matter of a few days—​Suh, McCoy and Marshall—has given the tired AFC East landscape a new look of reinvigoration. The Patriots still rule, and it is only early March, but it’s suddenly a little easier to imagine a legitimate challenge to their throne.