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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

OK to allow them these goofy grins

Bill Belichick runs off the field, another AFC East title won. He later cited the Patriots for overcoming a lot this season. (MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The last time the Patriots played here Paul McCartney was the halftime entertainment, Adam Vinatieri was making every big kick, Deion Branch was the game MVP, and half of the literary world was working on a book about Theo Epstein and the world champion Red Sox. Most New England ponds were frozen and nobody ever had heard of YouTube, Borat, or Daisuke Matsuzaka.

And the Patriots won, 24-21.

A lot of water has passed under the Hart Bridge next to Alltel Stadium since Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6, 2005, alongside the banks of the St. John's River. Mssrs. Branch, Vinatieri, McCartney, and Epstein all suffered divorce pains, New England's ice melted and never came back, and the three-ring Patriots retreated to the middle of the NFL's playoff pack.

Yesterday, the Patriots returned to Jacksonville and they won by the same score, this time beating the Jaguars to clinch the AFC East for the fourth consecutive year.

"It was pretty ironic," said unusually buoyant coach Bill Belichick. "The last time we were here [it was] the same score with [Rodney] Harrison getting the ball at the end of the game."

Belichick and most of his players wore "AFC East Championship" hats and T-shirts after the win. It seemed a little goofy -- like the Red Sox celebrating with Wild Card Champion T-shirts or the Bruins raising one of those Adams Division champion banners to the rafters in the Old Garden.

But don't tell them it was goofy. Small steps, you know?

"We overcame a lot this year to have the record we have," said Belichick.

"This is the culmination of the offseason, the preseason, and the regular season," said offensive lineman Matt Light. "I think everybody wants to relax and enjoy this moment. Come Wednesday, we've got to move on."

"It's a sense of accomplishment," added linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "Hopefully, this is the first of three shirts. There's still the AFC Championship, and hopefully the Super Bowl."

The Christmas Eve victory (ah, Christmas in Jacksonville -- think yahoos roasting marshmallows on open fires) clinched the division but changed little regarding the Patriots' January plans. After a trip to Tennessee for New Year's Eve, the Patriots are going to get a home playoff game against a wild-card opponent, then they're probably going to have to go to San Diego if they want to advance to the AFC title game. Brace yourselves for a lot of speculation about Belichick getting into the head of Marty Schottenheimer.

There is much good to say about your team on this Christmas Day. The Patriots are 11-4, 6-1 on the road. Even with veterans missing and other key people hurt, they still can beat most opponents on sheer preparation and execution. They disguise their weaknesses and take away what their opponents do best. It's a winning formula most of the time.

Belichick and Co. yesterday knew that they would have trouble running on the Jaguars. They went back to the old Charlie Weis spread 'em out offense -- the one that worked so well in Minnesota on that Monday night in October. And it worked again. Tom Brady completed passes to 11 receivers. New names replaced old names and the system worked when it needed to work. Belichick might get outdressed by Jack Del Rio, but he's not going to get outmaneuvered. Beating the Jekyll-Hyde Jaguars (they beat the Colts but lost to the Texans, twice) was not easy, but there was a feel of inevitability about it.

There was only one moment of true doubt for Patriots fans, and that came with just under seven minutes to play when rambling man Brady (31 yards on 10 carries) made a 7-yard run for a first down. Faced with a third and 6 from his 36, Brady eschewed the cheesy slide at the end of the play because he needed the last 2 yards and he paid the price when Jacksonville linebacker Clint Ingram drove his helmet into the back of Brady's jersey. The QB stayed down longer than usual and not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, back in the dens and living rooms of New England. Seasons can come to an end on plays like that one; New York Jet Mo Lewis changed the course of NFL history with a bone-rattling hit on Drew Bledsoe.

Brady came out of the game for one play, but seeing him on the sideline confused the Jaguars. They put 12 men on the field when they saw Matt Cassel. After the penalty was called, Brady returned and led the Patriots to their final touchdown.

The desperate Jags thought they had a chance to tie it after the two-minute warning but Walt Coleman was not on hand to rescue the home team when Jarvis Green stripped David Garrard near midfield with 1:46 left on the clock. Harrison, making his return from a broken scapula, recovered the fumble.

"It's pretty exciting for this team," said Brady. "We fought through a lot this year. Not a lot of people expected much, except the people in our locker room. We're pretty good when we don't beat ourselves. We're one of six in the AFC now. I like our chances."

It was strange to see them so excited about winning the division. You would think by now they've come to expect this level of success. But the 2006 season has been different. Nothing came easy for the Patriots this year. No gifts. Not even on Christmas Eve.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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