Foxborough, Mass. - After the smoke cleared Sunday, the New England Patriots found themselves in familiar territory. By virtue of their 35-28 win over Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh's 17-6 win over the New York Jets later in the day, the Patriots clinched their third AFC East title in the last four years.
Because the Patriots had yet to clinch during head coach Bill Belichick's post-game press conference following Sunday's game, he commented on the AFC East title Monday and said he would take time to congratulate the players.
"It's nice to have won the AFC East, that's one of our goals that we start with at the beginning of the year," Belichick said. "So it's a little bit of a feeling of accomplishment there. I want to congratulate the players on that, and I'll do that today."
The Patriots, who have a 12-1 mark for the first time in franchise history, have seven playoff appearances and five division titles in 11 seasons since 1994. Despite their recent success, Belichick delivered a message to his team. A poster was displayed in the team's meeting room outlining several of the recent Super Bowl participants (the New York Giants in 2000, the Patriots and Rams in 2001, the Raiders and Buccaneers in 2002) and their record the following season.
"Every year is its own year, and everybody starts at the same place and everybody has to climb the same mountain," Belichick said about the poster. "We can't control what people outside say or think or talk about. We just try to control what we do and what our attitude and approach is. From day one, you're battling 32 teams for those playoffs spots. Fortunately, we have one of them. Now we have to re-order some things and understand, again, there's a lot of football left to be played."
With three games remaining, only New England, Pittsburgh (12-1) and Indianapolis (10-3) have clinched their respective divisions. The rest of the AFC playoff picture remains unsettled. San Diego (10-3) has a two game lead over Denver (8-5) in the AFC West, while the New York Jets (9-4), Baltimore (8-5), Buffalo (7-6) and Jacksonville (7-6) remain in the chase.
"There [are] still three games to go," Belichick said. "A lot can happen. There are a lot of things that aren't decided in this league."
The Patriots witnessed the return of cornerbacks Tyrone Poole and Asante Samuel from injury Sunday, with mostly positive results. Poole played in a handful of plays in the first half after missing the last seven games due to a knee injury. He said following the game the plan was for him to test the knee in game conditions and see limited playing time as he works his way back into the lineup.
"Sure he's making progress," Belichick said. "He's been active for several weeks now, and to have him back out there was a step in the right direction. He got a few snaps, and we'll take that day-to-day and week-to-week and see how it progresses."
Samuel played the entire game against the Bengals after missing three of the last four games with a shoulder injury. Samuel started at left cornerback, recording his third career interception and second career touchdown on a 34-yard interception return in the second quarter. The Patriots haven't had their top three cornerbacks - Poole, Samuel and Ty Law - completely healthy together in the lineup since Week 3.
"It was good to see him out there, and to be able to start and finish the whole game," Belichick said. "That was encouraging. I talked to him after the game; I think he feels pretty good. So hopefully his situation will continue to improve and he'll get stronger."
The Day AfterLess than 24 hours after the Patriots had one of their worst defensive performances of the season Sunday at Gillette Stadium, Belichick was still outwardly displeased with the results. The Patriots allowed a season-high 478 total yards against the Bengals, also giving up the second-most points (28) and first downs (26) and the third-highest totals of the season in both rushing yards (150) and net yards passing (328).
Judging from his comments Monday, there was very little Belichick was satisfied with defensively.
"It's obvious we have a lot of work to do defensively," he said. "We didn't play very well in the game, and we got bailed out with some turnovers. We need to play the run better. We need to contain the quarterback better. We need to defend the pass better. We gave up some big plays. We were out of position. We didn't execute some things very well. Our tackling was spotty. So, there are a lot of things we need to do better. I don't think there's any one area can come out of that game defensively and say, 'That really looked pretty good and we're okay there.' I think there were issues with everything."
Quick HitsThe Patriots weren't made available to the press Monday. Belichick gave the players the day off, which will be followed by their regularly scheduled day off Tuesday. ... Belichick did not address how or when the Patriots would move forward in the hiring of a new offensive coordinator. "Right now, Charlie [Weis] is the offensive coordinator, and we're getting ready for Miami. That's where the focus is. That's it. Period. Nothing beyond that." ... Belichick said he has no specific plans for Troy Brown and his multiple roles at wide receiver, nickel back and punt returner. "Whatever we can do to win, that is what we are going to do. So, if Troy plays more on offense, or more on defense, or splits time, or more on special teams, it will be based on what we think gives us the best opportunity to win and be productive. That is all it will be based on. He has a lot skill and ability to help us in a number of different spots on the team. That flexibility is great to have. It is great as a coach to be able to draw on. Wherever we can use it we'll use it."