New England scored two touchdowns on defense and a third on special teams to easily defeat Carolina 38-6 to clinch the AFC Eastern Division title and at least the No. 3 seed from the conference.
The Patriots (11-5) got a big day from their secondary, which intercepted three passes and returned two for touchdowns. Ty Law took back a Chris Weinke pass 46 yards for a touchdown on the Panthers first possession, and Otis Smith had a 75-yard return in the second half.
It actually could have been Smith's second score of the game. One play after Law's touchdown return, Smith intercepted Weinke and went down the sideline for an apparent score. The touchdown was called back because of a holding call on safety Matt Stevens during the return.
Carolina was able to withstand the early attack by New England and trailed just 10-3 at halftime, mostly because the offense couldn't capitalize on opportunities. On the opening drive of the game Antowain Smith had a 5-yard touchdown called back because of a hold on guard Mike Compton. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
On its next possession, which came after Smith's first pick, New England got down to the Panthers 1-yard line. On fourth-and-goal, Smith fumbled, and Carolina recovered to keep itself in the game.
The Panthers, who set an NFL record for consecutive losses with their 15th straight Sunday, could not keep up in the second half. Despite nearly 200 yards rushing, most of which came from Richard Huntley, the Panthers could not punch it in against the Patriots defense.
New England also got several huge plays from the special teams units, including a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown by Troy Brown. That score extended the Patriots to a 17-3 lead and deflated any upset hopes for the Panthers.
"We got some real big plays out of our special teams," said Belichick, who got a turnover, a punt downed inside the 1-yard line and excellent coverage out of the kicking game. "I thought it was a tremendous effort out of those guys. Those were some huge plays, and I have to give credit to the way those guys played."
As the game wore on, the Patriots gathered more and more momentum. Antowain Smith took a run left 32 yards for his 12th touchdown of the year. The offense was also opportunistic, converting a fumble recovery into a touchdown.
Defensive lineman Riddick Parker recovered a Weinke fumble at the Carolina 8, and on third-and-goal from the 5, Tom Brady hit a wide open Jermaine Wiggins for a touchdown pass.
"We kind of feel like we are the leader in the clubhouse right now," Belichick said. "There are some teams behind us who will impact the seedings, and we'll just have to wait and see how those things play out."
-Brown became the Patriots single-season record holder with his second catch of the game, a 5-yarder in the first quarter. He finished the game with 100 receptions, bettering the previous mark of 96 by tight end Ben Coates.
-With his two interceptions, Otis Smith finished with a team-high five on the season. He and Law each returned their second picks for touchdowns this season.
-The division title for New England is the first since the team won the AFC East back-to-back from 1996-97.
-Carolina back Richard Huntley had a season-best 168 yards and had seven runs of 12 yards or more. However, the defense limited Carolina to two John Kasay field goals.
-The six turnovers caused by New England was a season high.