DENVER — It must be December in the AFC. Chestnuts are roasting on open fires and Tomato Cans are falling down in front of the sons of Bill Belichick.
Enjoy this as long as it lasts, people. You are not likely to see it ever again in professional sports.
It was yet another hat and T-shirt game for the New England Patriots Sunday. Playing one of their best games of the season, the Patriots Trumped the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, 16-3, at Mile High, winning the AFC East for the eighth consecutive season and the 13th time in the last 14 years. The Patriots are 14-2 in AFC East titles since Tom Brady took over at quarterback in 2001.
For the Patriots, winning the AFC East has become like signing up for Facebook or getting a letter of acceptance from the University of Phoenix. It’s professional sports’ version of a Newton youth soccer participation trophy. All the Patriots have to do to win is show up, play their traditional tight game, and wait for the other guys to make mistakes.
The chorus line of dunce coaches (Cam Cameron?) and bum quarterbacks (Thad Lewis?) populating the AFC East in this century stretches from Orchard Park to Miami Gardens with an annual stop at Exit 16W off the Jersey Turnpike. And the beneficiaries of this abject ineptitude are your New England Patriots — a team that never, ever takes a year off.
Winning the division is the first step in taking the Patriots where they expect to go. The Patriots’ annual mission is to win the division, qualify for a bye, then secure home field for the duration of the playoffs. They do this with historic efficiency. Winning the AFC East with two weeks still to play, and securing one of the top two seeds in the conference, gives the Patriots the inside track to Houston and an appearance in Super Bowl LI Feb. 5. A loss by Kansas City Sunday put the Patriots ever closer to a sixth straight AFC Championship game.
“Our goals can now be reset,” said Belichick after clinching the East. “That’s the first one. We’ll try to accomplish more this year.’’
The Patriots didn’t do anything spectacular Sunday, but it’s been really hard to win in Denver, and any victory at Mile High is to be coveted. Brady was 2-7 in the Bronco corral before Sunday.
“It was no masterpiece, but it was what it needed to be,’’ said Belichick.
True to form, fraidy cat Broncos coach Gary Kubiak was fully cooperative, chickening out on a long field goal attempt and sitting on the ball when it was still a competitive game late in the first half. The Broncos were rightfully booed off their own field by their own fans (74,698 cold souls) at intermission.
New England led, 10-3 at halftime. It felt like 73-0. The Patriots’ one and only touchdown of the day came on a 1-yard run by LeGarrette Blount (giving him 15 on the season, one more than Curtis Martin). The Patriots fumbled twice on their only TD drive, but naturally recovered both drops. New England has fumbled 25 times this year, recovering an amazing 16 times. I think they work on that on Fridays.
The Patriots controlled the entire second half. Denver did not have a first down in the third quarter. New England possessed the football for all but 4:10 of the third. The Broncos have one of the worst offensive lines in football and rushed for only 58 yards. They turned the ball over three times. New England had zero turnovers. Brady (16 for 32, 188 yards) did a nice job as an Alex Smith game manager.
When it was over, the Patriots were greeted in their locker room with hats that read “champions” and T-shirts with “Hold down the East” inscribed on the front. It was especially nice for veterans such as Chris Long and Chris Hogan, guys with no playoff experience.
The list of inept offenses the Patriots have faced this year staggers the mind. It’s not New England’s fault, and a 12-2 record is ever-enviable, but it would be nice to know if the Patriots’ amazing ability to keep teams off the scoreboard is owed to tremendous defense or merely stupifyingly bad offense by a succession of weaklings. I keep worrying that New England could be stunned by a good offense in the playoffs. Then again, maybe not. Maybe nobody can score on the Patriots because they are really good.
The Patriots are 7-0 on the road. Their final road game will be in Miami on New Year’s Day. The Patriots didn’t play to win the Miami game last year and it cost them. They forfeited home-field advantage and paid the price in Denver in January.
That’s not going to happen this year. The Patriots are going to clinch everything before they rest. Then they will only have to win twice — both games in Foxborough — to make it to their seventh Super Bowl under Belichick and Brady.
Seven Super Bowls. Six straight AFC title games. Eight straight division championships.
Enjoy. These are the good old days.