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PATRIOTS 12, DOLPHINS 0

Snowballin'

Patriots win 9th straight game, AFC East title

FOXBOROUGH -- Success won't change the Patriots. Better yet, success in December won't change the Patriots.

"We've got big plans," said rookie safety Eugene Wilson. "[This is] the first step."

New England secured its second AFC East title in three seasons with a 12-0 win over the Miami Dolphins yesterday at a giant snow globe commonly known as Gillette Stadium. The win coupled with Kansas City's 45-27 home loss to Denver moved the 11-2 Patriots ahead of the 11-2 Chiefs in the race for the conference's top playoff seed and the first-round bye and homefield advantage that come with it (Kansas City has lost two conference games, New England one). Gillette Stadium is guaranteed to host at least one playoff game.

If the players celebrated over any of this, they kept it brief and conducted it before outsiders were allowed into their locker room. They left the fun to the 45,378 fans, who following Tedy Bruschi's fourth-quarter touchdown used the snow that caused major logistical problems for party favors, tossing it skyward in unison. Honestly, the only visible proof that the players had accomplished anything was their commemorative T-shirts.

Blame it on Bill Belichick. The coach's tunnel-vision approach has seen the Patriots through 11 victories in 12 games and nine consecutive wins, so who are we to suggest correction? In the postgame locker room, he congratulated his team, told it to savor its first season sweep of Miami since 1997. Then he contradicted that by warning the players that next week's opponent, 4-9 Jacksonville, beat Houston, 27-0, yesterday. Those would be the same Houston Texans the Patriots edged in overtime two weeks ago.

"Everything trickles down from Coach Belichick," said Antowain Smith, who went from the inactive list last week to carrying 27 times yesterday. "He's not going to let us get too high. The main thing he told us was to be humble, that it's a great victory for us, and not to take anything away from ourselves. But the job is not complete yet."

"He keeps putting goals up there for you," offensive lineman Damien Woody said. "You never want to stay the same. You want to keep going up. He always puts goals in front of us. Even after a victory like [yesterday], the goal now is to maintain the No. 1 seed and beat a Jacksonville squad that's on the rise."

Belichick did not entertain any discussion last week about the possibility that his team would clinch a division title sooner than any other in franchise history. After it was done, he had little to say about it.

"It's one of your goals at the beginning of the year," said Belichick, whose team is tied with the 2001 edition for the most regular-season wins in Patriots history. "We're happy about it, obviously, but there's still a lot of football left to be played this year. We'll just keep looking ahead. I saw Jacksonville had a really big win [yesterday] and I watched a little bit of them on tape [last] week. They're pretty good, especially defensively. This will be a good challenge for us this week. We have to put this one behind us and move ahead. We'll enjoy it for a couple of hours."

It was not any enjoyable three hours for Miami, the fifth opponent New England has held to 10 points or fewer this season and the second straight visitor to Gillette Stadium not to score. (Tennessee's Steve McNair, four home games and two months ago, was the last person to score a touchdown here.) If you don't think this season is special, consider that the Patriots, coming into the season, had not shut out an opponent since 1996.

The Patriots held Miami's offense to 134 yards and an average of 2.2 yards per play. They sacked Jay Fiedler five times and forced him into 13-for-31 passing, with two interceptions. Ricky Williams gained 68 yards on 25 carries. They forced a Dolphins-record 11 punts by Matt Turk.

New England's offense didn't do much, either. Tom Brady and Co. did what they had to, and that was plenty. They held the ball for 32 minutes, 45 seconds. "I certainly didn't think we racked up many statistics," said Brady (16-of-31, 163 yards, 6 completions each to Deion Branch and Daniel Graham). "There weren't many mistakes, and I think a lot of times we play to the score, and we were winning."

The offense produced Adam Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal 13:14 into the first period. The defense did the rest -- Bruschi's 5-yard interception return for a touchdown with about 9 minutes remaining, and Jarvis Green's sack of Fiedler for safety with 1:18 left.

Bruschi has returned his last four interceptions for touchdowns. "It was defense where we had all the guys covered up. I peeked at Jay's eyes and there was the ball right there. I had to reach up and grab it."

And the fans proceeded to grab and toss what was left of the estimated 30 inches of snow Foxborough received over the weekend. "That was incredible, wasn't it?" Bruschi said. "Throwing the snow up in the air with the music. It got me into the holiday spirit."

If the Patriots have their way, they'll have their egg nog toast during their second bye week.

last game
Last game / Dec. 7 vs. Miami
Patriots
12
Miami
0
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afc east standings
  W L T Pct. PF PA
Patriots 11 2 0 .846 20.7 16.1
Dolphins 8 5 0 .615 18.5 15.6
Bills 6 7 0 .462 16.5 15.4
Jets 5 8 0 .385 18.5 19.6
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