Patriots' AFC East rivals make biggest moves, all refusing to kiss the rings

Long ago, the New England Patriots dubbed them "hat and T-shirt games," where victory means something tangible was won, namely an AFC East division title. It was thus commemorated with a ballcap or celebratory article of garish clothing.

The name serves not so much as a moment of joy but as a stop and smell the roses reminder. New England has won the AFC East 12 of the past 14 seasons, and if you hang around long enough, veterans say, it becomes routine, expected, just part of the process toward a far greater goal. (You get a hat or shirt for winning the AFC title and Super Bowl, too, but those accomplishments are not lost on anyone).

It's Super Bowl or bust in New England, but winning a division crown in the NFL should never be taken for granted. Or that's the theory. So here's a hat. Take a T-shirt. Soak it in … for a moment. Or something like that.

Rob Gronkowski shows off another AFC East title cap last December. (AP)
Rob Gronkowski shows off another AFC East title cap last December. (AP)

As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are around expecting anything other than the Patriots to finish first is at-risk prognostication.

Here, though, on the first day of free agency, this is what's undeniable: like maybe never before, the AFC East – the entire thing – is refusing, in Rex Ryan parlance, to kiss the rings.

The Miami Dolphins, unofficially as of Tuesday night, landed the biggest prize in free agency when they got defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a three-time All-Pro from the Detroit Lions. Suh is a matchup nightmare, drawing double teams and making everyone around him better, from fellow linemen who can storm the backfield to cornerbacks who don't have to hold coverage quite as long. The Dolphins are reportedly throwing $60 million guaranteed at Suh, who, at 26, is in his prime, carries a nasty streak that Brady can't be excited about and was considered by many to be the best free agent in years.

If Suh was the top available talent then Darrelle Revis may have been No. 2, and the New York Jets brought Revis' Island back to MetLife, courtesy of a $39 million guarantee. Still a lockdown corner, Revis adds immediate credibility to the Jets organization and, because he played for New England last season, weakens the champs.

They also tried to aid an anemic offense by trading for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who managed to deliver touchdown receptions even in the wreckage of Chicago the past few seasons. He can only help whomever new coach Todd Bowles makes his starting QB – returner Geno Smith or perhaps Marcus Mariota via the draft.

Then there are the Buffalo Bills, who actually went 9-7 only to see coach Doug Marrone opt out of his contract despite not having another job. It was par for the course of late for the franchise.

LeSean McCoy will get at least two cracks at the Patriots next season. (AP)
LeSean McCoy will get at least two cracks at the Patriots next season. (AP)

Buffalo rebounded nicely, though, by landing Rex Ryan, late of the Jets, who brings both a measure of credibility and a lot of bravado. His big move – and a sign that Ryan's signature old-school ground-and-pound is coming to Western New York – came when he traded for running back LeSean McCoy, who in Philadelphia was a two-time All Pro and led the league in rushing in 2013.

Buffalo also re-signed big defensive end Jerry Hughes and took a shot at offensive guard Richie Incognito, who was out of football because of a bullying scandal down in Miami. If he's behaving, there's no question he's a player.

Those are some monster free-agent signings, bold trades and possible hidden-value pickups. Miami, Buffalo and the Jets have been among the most active teams in the league thus far.

New England hasn't.

There are no victories for winning free agency, or the upcoming draft. Belichick has maintained this run of success in part because he won't overpay for a single name. It was an undrafted free-agent rookie out of West Alabama, after all, who made the Super Bowl-saving play this time.

While there is no doubt Belichick loved Revis in his one season in Foxborough, dropping $39 million on a cornerback who will be 30 by training camp and is working on a surgically repaired knee, isn't normally an advisable long-term plan. New England certainly wasn't willing to match.

Football is about managing the salary cap and finding a full roster that can deliver. That requires hard choices and sometimes missing out on days when everyone else is having all the fun. Then you have to coach them up. No one is better at that than Belichick.

This isn't the first, or last, time that AFC East teams have made big splash signings or drafted great players. Both Miami and, especially, the Jets have had very good teams during this run. In the end, though, it's usually New England, especially head-to-head.

Since 2001, the Pats are 67-19 against AFC East opponents (includes a season when the Indianapolis Colts were in the division). The rest of them are under .500 – New York Jets (40-46), Miami (36-50), Buffalo (30-56).

And there is always this: Matt Cassel, Ryan Tannehill and Geno Smith, the possible starting quarterbacks for the Bills, Dolphins and Jets respectively.

No one in Foxborough is looking on with envy.

Still, Tuesday was the latest in a bold run by a division that too often fell down in the face of the New England steamroller. This was a sign of high stakes and serious moves.

Ndamukong Suh. Shady McCoy. Revis and his island. That's just some of it, and just the start. There's still the draft in May.

The road to hat and T-shirt day still runs through Gillette, but if another occurs up there next December it may not take a reminder for Belichick, Brady and the others to appreciate what was won.

The competition is real this time. They're all coming, and coming strong, for the king.