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Pats tie earliest clinching of the AFC East

01:00 AM EST on Monday, November 26, 2007


Journal Sports Writer

FOXBORO — Last night was supposed to be a “hat-and-T-shirt game” for the New England Patriots, but the Buffalo Bills took the suspense out of things before kickoff.

The Pats no doubt still received their celebratory garb for clinching their fifth straight AFC East championship, but they didn’t have to beat the Philadelphia Eagles to earn the togs, inasmuch as the Bills’ loss in Jacksonville gave them the title.

By clinching the AFC East title in Week Eleven, New England now shares the record for fastest to secure the division since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule in 1978 with three other teams — the 1985 Bears, the ’97 49ers and the 2004 Eagles.

New England also is the first AFC East team (which includes teams in the AFL’s Eastern division) to claim five consecutive titles, surpassing the four straight won by Buffalo from 1988-91 and the Dolphins on two occasions.

The NFL record for consecutive division titles is seven, won by the Los Angeles Rams from 1973-79. Remarkably, the Rams made just one Super Bowl appearance during that run, losing Super Bowl XIV to the Steelers at the end of the ’79 season.

It is the 11th time in franchise history that New England has won the division; 8 of those crowns have come under the ownership of Robert Kraft, and six have come since Bill Belichick became head coach.

Under Belichick, the Pats have not only won, they’ve dominated. None of their AFC East titles in the last five years has come in the regular-season finale. Last year, they clinched in the penultimate game of the season, in Jacksonville; in 2005, it was in Week 15 against the Buccaneers; in 2003 and 2004, it was Week 14.

Since 2001, New England is 33-9 in intra-division games, which not surprisingly is the best such record in the league. Pittsburgh is 32-12 in the same span.

Last year against the Jaguars, New England won, 24-21, and donned black hats after the victory, which announced their division title. Tom Brady gave a game ball to Kraft, much as he did after the Patriots’ previous win in Jacksonville, over Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX.

In each of the seasons the Patriots won the Super Bowl, they also won the AFC East.

Division winners automatically earn a berth in the playoffs, and this is the 16th time in the 48-year history of the Patriots that the team is headed for the postseason. New England was a wildcard entrant four times, and in the strike-shortened 1982 season, it was part of a 16-team tournament.

Tedy Bruschi was the Pats player to dub potential championship affairs as hat-and-T-shirt games, noting that there’s always something extra in your locker when you turn out on the winning end of such games.

New England no doubt has three hat-and-T-shirt sets on its to-do list, with the goal of adding a commemorative set for the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl.