CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Patriots took part in all the usual division-clinching activities after yesterday’s 38-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers, which gave them the AFC East title for the first time since 1997.
They donned championship caps and T-shirts. Otis Smith and Lawyer Milloy dropped a bucketful of ice water over coach Bill Belichick’s head. Players threw parts of their uniforms to Patriots fans, who made up an estimated 40 percent of the 21,070 on hand in the cold, drizzly conditions.
And they presented the game ball to defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, whose mother died during the week.
Owner Robert Kraft shook hands with and waved to fans, enjoying a moment he probably thought wouldn’t come so soon in the Belichick era. Chief operating officer Andy Wasynczuk pumped his fist and walked quietly toward the team bus.
“For the next three hours, let’s root for the Jets,” said Kraft, who thanked all of the New England fans at Ericsson Stadium, some of whom drove 14 hours to the game.
Whether the rooting helped or not, the Jets beat the Raiders a few hours after New England’s win, and, as a result, the Patriots, who went from 5-11 last season (Belichick’s first) to 11-5 this season, are the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and have a first-round bye this weekend. They’ll host a second-round game at Foxboro Stadium Jan. 19 or 20.
Perhaps linebacker Tedy Bruschi summed it up best, even though he suffered a concussion during the second quarter and had to leave the game.
The cobwebs lifted, and his eyes refocused, Bruschi said, “You can win 16 games in a row, and then lose the first game of the playoffs. What good is that? That’s why we have to enjoy what we’ve done for a while, and then we’d better get back to work with the same concentration and focus we’ve had to get here.”
The Patriots forced six Carolina turnovers, with Ty Law and Smith returning interceptions for touchdowns of 46 and 76 yards.
Law’s return gave the Patriots a 10-0 lead and some steam. He stepped in front of intended receiver Steve Smith and was off to the races, some Panthers giving up on the play.
“We knew the traction wasn’t that good and that the receivers would have trouble coming out of their breaks,” said Law. “That was one of those situations.”
Still, the Patriots led only, 10-3, at the half against the Panthers, who set an NFL record with their 15th straight loss this season. Any Carolina upset thoughts were dashed quickly in the second half, when Troy Brown fielded a 61-yard punt by Pro Bowler Todd Sauerbrun and returned it 68 yards, dodging three Panthers along the way, to give the Patriots a 17-3 lead with 8:30 left in the third quarter.
“I saw an opening and I hit it,” said Brown, who also broke the Patriots record for catches in a season, eclipsing Ben Coates’s 96. Brown had six catches for 45 yards, giving him 101 receptions for the season.
“I slipped on my first return going along the sideline, so I decided to go up the middle,” Brown said. “When you have a chance to make a play like that to help your team get out in front and change momentum, you try your best to hit it. I got big blocks up front and I just hit the middle full speed. I wasn’t stopping. When I came through the pack, I saw the punter. I had to make the punter miss.”
The game was far from a complete artistic success, however. Quarterback Tom Brady completed 17 of 29 passes for 198 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Carolina’s Richard Huntley ran for 168 yards on 22 carries, and the Panthers ran for 193 yards, an average of 7.1 per carry. But dwelling on the negative in this one would be like saying the ice cream was too cold.
The Panthers were able to add a field goal, pulling them within 17-6 in the third, but moments later Antowain Smith did what he’s done all season - put the opponent away. This time, it was a 32-yard run for a score with 1:29 remaining in the third, which gave the Patriots a 24-6 lead.
“Our philosophy has been to run as hard as possible and good things will happen,” said Smith, who gained 81 yards on 21 carries. The touchdown was his 12th rushing and 13th overall. While the team finished under 4 yards per carry on the year for the 16th straight season, Smith wound up with 1,157 yards on 287 carries for a 4-yard average.
“We know we need to run the football to be successful,” said Smith. “It’s been a big part of our offense. We have that mind-set and that threat. If you pound it and pound it, then everyone has to respect it. I think people do respect it now.”
Suddenly it was garbage time. Backup defensive lineman Riddick Parker stripped Panthers quarterback Chris Weinke of the ball early in the fourth quarter at the Carolina 9.
Three plays later, Brady floated a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Wiggins for a 31-6 lead. Although tight ends haven’t been a focus this season, Wiggins also caught a 31-yard pass from Brady in the second quarter.
“He’s got a great knack for buying in,” said Brady. “He’s a smart player. He realizes that the guy covering him is in man coverage. He seems to get open quite a bit.”
Otis Smith put the finishing touches on the AFC East coronation with his long interception return. The oldest starting cornerback in the league said, “It was a great play on our part defensively. We had been working on that one play, and it took us two weeks to get it right. Then we got it right today.”
After a team roar in the locker room, and a few speeches by players and Belichick, the Patriots were just waiting to see what their playoff path would be.
“From worst to first,” said Bruschi. “That’s what we accomplished in the regular season. With winning comes good things like respect. I think we’ve earned that the hard way. Now we have to be respected for what we do in the playoffs, and that’s the biggest form of respect.”