- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Patriots linebackers Jerod Mayo (left) and Rob Ninkovich show off their AFC East champions hat and T-shirt.DENVER -- Patriots players returned to their lockers Sunday to find hats and T-shirts celebrating their clinching of the AFC East division title on the heels of a 41-23 triumph over the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Many players immediately pulled apart their bundles and put on the shirts and hats for the long flight back to New England.
"That's one of our goals at the start of the season -- to meet the challenge of our division -- and our players have done that," coach Bill Belichick said. "We are 6-2 on the road. They've done a good job. They've met a lot of challenges and this was a big one."
Said defensive captain Vince Wilfork: "It never gets old. We work so hard the whole year to get to this step, and this is just one of the steps hopefully. Division champs, that's awesome. We've had a lot of games where we've had to fight and battle our tails off, but guys never gave up."
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski proudly showcased his T-shirt when reporters brought it up.
"[The hat is] in my bag, but I got the shirt on," he said with a big grin. "It does [feel good]. Clinching the division, obviously we’re all happy. But we also have two more games to go. Two more important games. We got the Miami Dolphins this week, so we’re definitely going to be practicing hard and getting ready for them."
Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who earned his second hat and T-shirt combo in as many years in the league, had stashed his in his travel bag. He was asked if he just takes this sort of thing for granted.
"No, I wouldn't say that," he said. "I would say that, obviously, this is what we work for. I’m happy to be some type of champion."
Safety James Ihedigbo, who came over from the rival Jets this season, enjoyed the feeling of being a division champ, posing for a picture with teammate Ross Ventrone near their lockers after the game.
"I mean, wow!" Ihedigbo said. "AFC East champs. We have a competitive division, a lot of great teams, and to work as hard as we have this year and come out on top, it's a big step in the right direction. We have a few more championships to win though."