New England clinched its third consecutive AFC East title with a resounding 28-0 shutout win over Tampa Bay last Saturday at Gillette Stadium. But in doing so, the Patriots also accomplished something that may be even more important for the team's long-term hopes this season.
Heading into the matchup with the NFC South-leading Buccaneers, New England had dominated its previous two opponents, the lowly Jets and Bills, for just its second two-game winning streak of the season. But those emphatic wins did nothing to quiet the team's naysayers.
But now, after shutting out the Bucs (the first time the team has been shut out in Jon Gruden's tenure in Tampa) in truly dominant fashion, it looks as if the back-to-back defending Super Bowl champs might be rounding into form for another postseason run. Offensively, Tom Brady and Co. now have a full compliment of weapons. Defensively, despite a still questionable secondary, New England is playing aggressive, playmaking football that's leading to sacks and turnovers. The Patriots have held the past three opponents to a combined 10 points. Even better, those three opponents have rushed for a combined 85 yards.
The offense is clicking. The defense is becoming dominating. And the other teams in the AFC, teams that had been looking way down in the standings at the Patriots for most of the 2005 season, may be starting to shake in their proverbial snow boots.
That's not to say everything is perfect for the Patriots. There are still questions on the offensive line, doubts surrounding a lifeless rushing game and concerns about a no-name, suspect secondary. But the champs are building confidence and don't appear to be anything like the team that struggled to find consistency through an injury-plagued, early-season schedule.
"Anytime you win with a shutout, that's just going to put a little more confidence in your team and the players," said wide receiver David Givens, who established a career high with 137 receiving yards against the NFL's No. 2-ranked defense. "Tampa Bay has a lot of good players. We just basically played a better game. ... Our defense played great. Great defense wins championships, and that's how our defense performed tonight."
"We played well the last few weeks and definitely again (against Tampa Bay)," defensive end Richard Seymour said. "I thought today was a big test for us. That's a football team that loves to run the football. It's definitely different than the last two weeks when we did it against losing football teams. In the win column, that's one of the best teams in the NFC. It definitely adds a lot of confidence to this football team."
That confidence had been missing over the first three-plus months of the season. And its return is a bad thing for the rest of the AFC as the veteran-based, confident Patriots chase an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl title.
Tedy Bruschi may just get his wish for conference and Super Bowl T-shirts to go with the ones he already has at home. "I play for the hat and T-shirts," he said during the team's previous postseason run. He'll get that opportunity as the Patriots have clinched at least the number four seed in the playoffs.
New England dominated the play Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium on the way to the 28-0 win over Tampa Bay that clinched the Patriots' third consecutive AFC East title. New England got on the board with an opening-drive touchdown and never looked back while putting up four touchdowns and more than 330 yards against the No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL.
The Patriots defense, ranked 29th in the league coming into the game, dominated Chris Simms and Tampa's offensive attack. New England held rookie rusher Cadillac Williams to just 23 yards on 14 carries with no run of more than 3 yards on the afternoon. Making the Bucs one-dimensional allowed New England to go after Simms, creating a New England season-high seven sacks, including one sack/forced fumble by Mike Vrabel that led to New England's third score late in the second quarter to just about close the door on Tampa.
Tom Brady showed little sign of the shin injury that earned him a questionable listing on the Patriots' injury report. He threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions on 20-of-31 accuracy.
The game improved New England to 9-5 on the season, gave the team its first three-game winning streak of the year and first victory over an opponent with a winning record in more than two months.
The Patriots now close out the regular season with a pair of virtually meaningless division games, a Monday night trip to face the Jets and a New Year's Day home season finale against the Dolphins.
"That was a good win for our football team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after Saturday's game. "I thought we got a good solid effort from the entire football team. We had a good week of practice, good focus in the game, and they played well in all areas of the game. I think it's a real credit to the players to go out there and play well like this against a real good football team, in Tampa. You have to give a lot of credit to the players for playing physical and making the plays when they had the opportunity to."
Some material from wire reports was used in this article.