The New England Patriots clinched the AFC East for the fifth consecutive time with the Miami Dolphins’ loss to the Buffalo Bills Sunday. Because the Patriots beat the Broncos earlier this season, they hold the tiebreaker advantage.
For New England to get home-field advantage, the Patriots must beat the Bills next week and the Broncos must lose to the Raiders.
The Patriots knew the hats and T-shirts were coming.
When the Miami Dolphins lost earlier in the day, New England claimed its fifth consecutive AFC East title before stepping onto the field against the Ravens. The postgame locker room would be filled with gear representing the latest triumph.
Then quarterback Tom Brady and company went out to show they were worthy of the swag. Mission accomplished, once again.
Brady passed for 172 yards and a touchdown, running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for two scores, and the Patriots’ defense dominated throughout as New England defeated the Baltimore Ravens 41-7 Sunday.
“We knew the Dolphins had lost before our game, but it wouldn’t have been as good coming in here without winning and getting a hat and T-shirt,” Brady said following New England’s fourth win in five games. “Great win against a very good team on the road, just what we needed.”
The Patriots scored on three straight possessions in the first half, including first-quarter touchdowns by Blount (1-yard run) and Shane Vereen (4-yard pass from Brady).
Kicker Stephen Gostkowski booted field goals in the second and third quarters as the Patriots (11-4) took a 20-0 lead. New England’s defense held the Ravens (8-7) to 71 total yards in the first half, generated four turnovers and scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of the game.
“There is no statistic that correlates more to winning than turnovers,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who won his 11th division title in New England, all with Brady.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco played despite suffering a mild knee injury last week, and he finished 22 of 38 for 260 yards with two interceptions.
Including last week’s field-goal-heavy win over the Detroit Lions, Baltimore went more than seven quarters without a touchdown until Flacco’s 1-yard scoring drive with 9:21 remaining.
Little went right before or after the Ravens’ lone score.
“I mean, I guess you can say that,” Flacco said. “That’s the way the game kind of ended up. I don’t know if it’s nothing went right. I just think we didn’t play well enough.”
Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan intercepted Flacco twice.
Late in the fourth quarter, New England defensive end Chandler Jones recovered a botched snap in the end zone for a touchdown, and Patriots defensive back Tavon Wilson returned an interception 74 yards for the game’s final score. Wilson picked off a pass thrown by Ravens backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
Blount gained 76 yards on 16 carries, including touchdowns of 1 and 7 yards. Brady completed 14 of 26 passes, including seven for 77 yards to wide receiver Julian Edelman.
The loss snapped Baltimore’s four-game winning streak. The defending Super Bowl champions remain in contention for a wild-card berth, though they can no longer win the AFC North title. The Ravens’ regular-season finale is in Cincinnati against the division champion Bengals next Sunday.
“We wouldn’t have clinched here anyways with a win,” said Ravens coach John Harbaugh when asked about his team needing to triumph next week and receive help from others. “We’ve got to play a lot better than we did today to go in there and get a win.”
The Ravens were stopped three times on downs in the second half, including on running back Ray Rice’s fourth-and-1 rush from New England’s 4-yard line late in the third quarter.
Kicker Justin Tucker, Baltimore’s Week 15 hero, missed his only field-goal attempt from 37 yards. He converted each of his previous 33 attempts, including a 61-yard game-winner against the Lions.
Blount’s first scoring run came immediately after the Ravens were penalized 34 yards for pass interference in the end zone.
On Baltimore’s next drive, Ryan intercepted Flacco near midfield, hauling in a pass tipped by linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Vereen scored following Danny Amendola’s 34-yard reception that moved New England to the Baltimore 6-yard line.
After the win, Gostkowski donned one of the AFC East champion T-shirts, Edelman a hat. The typically nattily attired quarterback wore a sweater over a dress shirt and tie. Don’t assume, however, that the fashion choice meant that such mementos are old hat to Brady, a three-time Super Bowl champion.
“Absolutely not,” he said, noting he stuffed the new gear in his travel bag. “I’ll be wearing [the hat and T-shirt] all week. Hopefully we can keep finding ways to get those hats and T-shirts.”
Thanks to Brady and Belichick preaching a next-man-up mentality, New England is once again king of the AFC East division.