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MIAMI -- Ho-hum, another AFC East championship. That summed up the mood from all corners of the New England Patriots' locker room following Sunday's 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium.
It's not that Patriots players didn't appreciate the free hats and T-shirts waiting for them following the grind-it-out win. It's just that they have bigger goals on their minds. If this is the high point, the season will be a disappointment.
This is how high the bar has been raised in New England; win your 10th AFC East title in the past 12 years and it's not like the champagne flows.
"It's only just begun," special-teams captain Matthew Slater said. "There's a lot of work left."
It starts with one of the most highly anticipated games of the season, when the Houston Texans visit Gillette Stadium on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." The 11-1 Texans have the best record in the AFC, so if the 9-3 Patriots have any hope of claiming a No. 1 playoff seed, they'll need a victory in what figures to be a frigid but electric environment.
The hype machine will be in full force this week, but that wouldn't be the case if the Patriots didn't take care of business Sunday in South Florida, which has traditionally been a challenging place for them to win. They did so, relying on their improving defense to keep things in order on a day the offense was held to its second-lowest point total of the season.
Not every game can be a blowout. Championship teams have to win ugly, too, even though quarterback Tom Brady disagreed about the aesthetics of the victory.
"That wasn't ugly, that was a great win," declared Brady, who was sacked four times and intercepted for the first time since Oct. 14. "They made it tough on us, no question about it, and I thought we fought hard. We made some critical plays when we had to."
|Sunday's division-clinching win didn't come easy, but Tom Brady was more than happy with the result.|
Maybe Brady, who became the first quarterback to win 10 division titles, is right. It might have been "ugly" based on the recent standard set by the NFL's highest-scoring offense -- the Patriots really make it look so easy at times -- but how about some credit to the Dolphins? Their defense controlled the line of scrimmage for three-and-a-half quarters, turning the Patriots into a one-dimensional attack (the running game struggled) until it delivered when it counted.
It took a clock-churning, 16-play drive in the fourth quarter, maybe the Patriots' best of the season, to finally put the pesky Dolphins away. Only then could the championship hats and T-shirts -- which some players put on right away (recently acquired cornerback Aqib Talib, for one) and others simply packed into their travel bags -- be delivered to the locker room.
The way the Patriots reacted, and also how the defense is evolving, has New England looking primed to make one of its patented runs deep into the postseason. Sunday was the first step, ensuring at least a home playoff game on wild-card weekend, and that they aren't satisfied is true to the identity of their hard-driving head coach, Bill Belichick.
"We accomplished one of our goals this year, to be in the postseason. That's good, but more importantly, we've just got to keep working to get better," Belichick said. "We've still got a lot of football left to play. We've got a long way to go."
Belichick didn't like what he saw from the offense Sunday until the final drive, saying, "Certainly we can do better than we did. We'll just keep working to get better each week. We've got a real good football team coming in, so we'll get ready for Houston, because that'll be a big challenge."
There might not be a team in the NFL that turns the page faster than the Patriots. They had just secured a division title, but here they were, already looking ahead to the Texans.
"It's nice to do it early," defensive end Rob Ninkovich said of clinching the division, "and now we can really focus in on next week, which is going to be a big game for us."
"It's all Houston at this point," cornerback Kyle Arrington added.
Defensive end Trevor Scott, who was part of Oakland Raiders teams that produced a 26-38 record from 2008 to 2011, was one player who had reason to celebrate Sunday after some of the hard football times he'd endured in the Black Hole. But after he made his biggest contributions of the season Sunday with two sacks as he stepped in for Chandler Jones (ankle injury) and Jermaine Cunningham (suspension), he followed the lead of his teammates in a businesslike locker room.
This is the way the Patriots do it -- always striving for improvement, always looking ahead to the next game on the schedule, even on a day they clinch a division championship. Those who aren't part of the program quickly adapt.
"You never get too high, you never get too low, we just know it's the right step in the direction we want to go," Scott said.
As for the next step for the AFC East champs, it comes Monday night against the Texans. The excitement already is building.
"This is when the best teams really start to separate themselves," Brady said. "We've got a huge game coming up."