FOXBOROUGH - The tangible evidence rested inside each Patriot’s locker yesterday afternoon, waiting for them when they walked off the field. In every stall there was a rolled-up T-shirt, wrapped with a rubber band, and stuck inside a hat. Both items had “AFC East Champions” printed on them.
Some players slipped on the hats. Others left the garb in their stalls. Coach Bill Belichick strode to the middle of the room.
“We’ve accomplished one of our goals,” Belichick told his team, one player recalled. “But we can’t be satisfied. We set out to do much more than that.”
There will be January football again in New England, a certainty after the Patriots crushed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 35-7, at Gillette Stadium. The victory, their most complete and dominant performance of the season’s second half, clinched the AFC East and a return trip to the playoffs after their one-season hiatus, a layoff that did nothing to affect the Patriots’ expectations.
While the Patriots kept their ambitions high, they did not dismiss yesterday’s accomplishment. The best record they can finish with is 11-5, the same mark that kept them out of the playoffs last year. None of that mattered to them.
“This year, we did more than the other teams in the AFC East,” Belichick said. “We’re proud of that.”
The Patriots also finalized an undefeated regular season at home, where they outscored opponents by 18.4 points per game in eight victories. While the Patriots finished stripping the Jaguars and selling them for parts, they gathered on their sideline, tightly packed and high-fiving, one of the final scenes from an idyllic day. Even the weather, rainy all morning, was impersonating spring by the second half.
In the fourth quarter, the crowd chanted the first name of Randy Moss, who caught three touchdown passes and, two weeks ago, had been booed off the same field. Tom Brady completed 23 of 26 passes for 267 yards and four TD, recapturing his typical form after two weeks of fighting injuries and mediocrity. Wes Welker surpassed his team record for catches in a season, hauling in 13 balls for 138 yards.
The Patriots could have relied on Miami’s loss to the Houston Texans to clinch the division, but they never created any doubt. Their spot in the postseason secure, they have the luxury of resting their starters next week in Houston.
“I mean, it’s big,” said Brady, a spectator at this time last season. “It’s been a long journey for all of us. You start out in the beginning of January last year not making the playoffs. It’s a great win for us.”
Faced with adversity uncommon in Foxborough, the Patriots have rebounded with three consecutive victories. On the heels of losing three of four games in a season for the first time since 2002, four players were sent home for arriving late to a team meeting. A maelstrom of controversy ensued.
“Sometimes that can start quarrels,” said defensive end Ty Warren, who returned yesterday after missing last week’s game. “Sometimes other guys like Coach or myself, right on down the line, can insert some saneness into the whole situation.”
The Patriots have not lost since their two-game losing streak, the first since 2006. They were besieged with speculation - some of it warranted - about dissension among the team. But they never unraveled.
“We didn’t really pay attention to any of that,” Welker said. “We knew what we had to do, in this room, which was taking care of business on a day-to-day basis.”
And because of that, they had a chance to seal the division yesterday. The Jaguars threatened only in the game’s opening moments. The Patriots drove 82 yards on their first possession, but Laurence Maroney fumbled on the 1-yard line, his third goal-line fumble this season. The Jaguars gained possession, and Maroney would not play again.
The Jaguars ran the ball at the Patriots, again playing without mammoth defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. Facing fourth and 1 at their 35, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio made a decision that effectively turned the game. He went for it.
As he settled into his three-point stance, Warren examined the Jaguars’ formation and noticed an extra tackle on their right side. “All the keys led to them going over there,” Warren said. He knifed through two linemen, angling toward the right side, and burst into the backfield.
Warren’s penetration forced Maurice Jones-Drew to cut laterally deep in his backfield. The hesitation allowed safety James Sanders to drop Jones-Drew at the line, and the defense ran off the field.
The rest of the afternoon played out in the same fashion, a string of big plays followed by flying chest bumps and high fives. At halftime, the Patriots had run 32 plays, converted 16 first downs, and gained 291 yards - 9.1 yards per play. Their 28-0 lead gave the Jaguars a franchise record for largest halftime deficit.
The Patriots’ offense finished with 464 yards, a whopping total created by several typically unsung players. Guard Stephen Neal returned to the lineup, giving the Patriots their best offensive line of the season. Sammy Morris rushed for 95 yards and a touchdown in Maroney’s absence. Tight end Chris Baker hauled in a 26-yard touchdown pass, his first in nearly three months.
“It feels real good,” said Baker, in his first season with the Patriots. “It feels real good. I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m happy to be going back to the playoffs.”
Afterward, the Patriots retreated to their locker room, their new garb awaiting. Outside, the stadium loudspeakers blared “Beautiful Day.” Inside, the Patriots knew they will have more football to play.
“I remember getting my first hat and T-shirt as a rookie,” Warren said. “It’s a cool feeling. At the same time, guys were like, `Hey, man. This ain’t nothing.’ There’s still more to go. I don’t really parade around with the hat and T-shirt. There’s still so much more to be accomplished.”