The AFC East title hasn't been in doubt all that often over the past few years; the Patriots have gone into the season as the favorites and done little to give the Bills, Dolphins and Jets any hope of seizing the crown.
Not so this season.
"The competitive level has slowly but surely evened out," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "These teams are tired of being the underdogs in the division. You knew it had to happen someday. They all smell the chance for victory, and they're close and in a tight race. We have to understand that and understand that everybody's hungry."
The next three weeks, in fact, might determine just who wins the AFC East title. The Patriots (5-3) host the Bills (5-3), who have lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins and Jets, on Sunday before hosting the Jets (5-3) next week and traveling to Miami (4-4) after that.
But don't bother trying to get the Patriots to lend perspective to the next three weeks. As far as Bill Belichick and his players are concerned, the only game on the schedule is Sunday against Buffalo.
"What's important is this week against Buffalo," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Everything after that really doesn't matter much. The Bills are thinking the same thing. We haven't played them yet this year. We've played a lot of like opponents, so we've seen them on film a lot, and I'm sure they've seen us on film. But now it's our time to match up on Sunday."
Said fullback Heath Evans, "We can't look past this one, not look at three back-to-back. We're starting with a team that started well and a team that's got a lot of new faces that we haven't seen before. It's going to be a tough challenge for us."
Only center Dan Koppen gave an indication that he even had any idea who the Patriots had on the schedule after Sunday.
"They're all important -- division games are important no matter when you play them in a season," he said. "We've got a big run coming up here, but hopefully we can just hunker down and play some good football and see where it lands."