FOXBOROUGH – It was almost impossible to see this coming.
In their last four games, the Patriots had looked really bad on both sides of the ball in a blowout loss to New Orleans and second-half collapse in Miami. They followed up those performances by narrowly defeating two sub-par teams in as many weeks (Carolina and Buffalo).
This week, they hosted a Jacksonville team that, despite its 7-7 record, was fighting for a playoff spot itself. But New England was playing for something as well.
Patriots players have taken to calling any game in which a championship is on the line a "hat and t-shirt game" because if you win, you get a hat and t-shirt that says you won your division, conference, or the Super Bowl.
New England came into this game with a chance to win their seventh AFC East division title this decade. From the beginning, it was clear that the Patriots wanted that much more than the Jaguars wanted a wildcard spot.
When RB Laurence Maroneyfumbled at the Jags goal line on the opening drive of the game, New England's defense responded with a fourth-and-one stop at Jacksonville's own 35-yard line. That led to a four-play drive that resulted in the first of WR Randy Moss' three touchdown catches from QB *Tom Brady.
The Patriots defense picked off Jaguars QB David Garrardtwice and sacked him a couple of times as well, while limiting Jacksonville's vaunted ground game to under 100 yards total for the afternoon. Offensively, New England ran the ball extremely effectively (just shy of 200 yards, a 5.5 per-carry average, and a touchdown from Sammy Morris), while Brady was a near-flawless 23-of-26, four TDs, and no interceptions.
Realizing the significance of the ramifications of a win in this game, the Patriots played perhaps their most complete game this season.
An elated head coach Bill Belichickindicated that his team was due for such a game, given the work they'd put in this past week.
"We had a real good week of practice, with the holidays and everything, but they focused all the way through … Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, just carried right through today. They stepped up and made play after play. I'm real proud of them."
The prevailing sentiment in the Patriots' post-game locker room seemed to be one of cautious satisfaction.
"Hey, AFC East champs. Good job, you know. It's a great accomplishment," said safety Brandon Meriweather, who registered one of New England's INTs. "But you've got to take it in stride. We've still got a game next week. We've really done nothing yet. We still have Houston and the playoffs to go, so, we're trying to take it one game at a time."
"It's good to be back in the playoffs," echoed center Dan Koppen. "We've got some more work to do, but that's one of our goals coming into the season. Accomplishing it is a really good feeling … Hopefully we can build on this and keep going. From start to finish, everybody was in it."
"We've got to string more of those together," observed DL Ty Warren, who returned after missing the Bills game with an ankle injury. "That's what we'll need in the future ... It was a complete win today."
Also returning to the lineup was RB Fred Taylor, who's been out since early October with his own ankle problem. He finished the day with 35 yards on 11 carries.
"That feels even better," Taylor said of winning the AFC East crown. "It's been about nine years since I've had a hat and t-shirt, so, I'm definitely going to frame mine up, throw it in the attic, you know … memories, man. That's what it's all about."
Similar thoughts were expressed by TE Chris Baker, who caught Brady's second TD pass and who last was a division champ as a rookie with the New York Jets in 2002.
"It feels real good, it feels real good," he said afterward. "For me, it's been a long time, so, I'm happy to be a part of it. Hopefully, we can keep moving forward from here."
Facing their final road trip of the regular season next weekend in Houston, the Patriots must decide how to approach the Texans, who are still in the playoff hunt following their victory of the Miami Dolphins.
"I don't think it took the pressure off. You don't play the game any different. You play to win. You want to go into the playoffs winning," insisted LB Adalius Thomas.
"We'll enjoy it here for a little while, then figure out what's next," Belichick added. "It's good to walk off that field as AFC East champs this year. Right now, it means our season goes on. We'll figure out exactly what that means later. But it's good to be in the post-season."