FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With the way the New England Patriots have been playing lately, along with their comfortable lead in the division, it would take a magnanimous collapse for them to lose the AFC East title.
In fact, Reebok can start printing the T-shirts this week.
The Patriots (6-2, 2-1 AFC East) knocked off the 2008 division champion Miami Dolphins on Sunday, which gave New England plenty of room for error over its final eight regular-season games.
"That was definitely something that we talked about all week," Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We knew this was our biggest division game this year. We knew we had a lot to lose and a lot to gain. The fact that we got the win definitely helps us out going forward."
The Dolphins ended the Patriots' streak of five consecutive division titles in 2008 because of a tiebreaker. Both teams finished 11-5 overall and 4-2 in the division, but the Dolphins won an extended tiebreaker and turned the Patriots into the second 11-win team in history to miss the playoffs. It doesn't look like they'll leave that to chance in 2009.
"It's always, if you win your division games and you win some other big games and conference games, you control a lot of your own destiny," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. "Those are important games to win. If you just look at last year, we lost a lot of those games, and that's why we were home in January."
While the Patriots are comfortable, they obviously still have half of their schedule remaining. The next four games — at Indianapolis (8-0), home for the New York Jets (4-4, 1-3 AFC East), at New Orleans (8-0) and at Miami (3-5, 3-1 AFC East) — will serve as the key stretch of the season.
"We have a pretty tough stretch here in November, so it was good to get off to a great start," said quarterback Tom Brady, who has 2,364 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. "We knew we got our rest last week [during the bye], so we've got to put a lot into it this week."
Since the Patriots have Super Bowl aspirations, they'll likely need to win at least one game in Indy this season. Without a victory Sunday night, the Patriots can kiss home-field advantage goodbye and will probably have to go through the Colts in January.
Either way, the Patriots have themselves in contention for a first-round bye, along with the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2), Denver Broncos (6-2, though they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with New England) and San Diego Chargers (5-3).
But first is the division. While the Patriots put their foot down on the throat of the AFC East by beating the Dolphins, they can snap the division's jugular in a heavily anticipated rematch with the Jets in two weeks. As if there wasn't already enough at stake with that game — remember the Jets' "Super Bowl" victory in Week 2? — the Patriots can put their minds at ease by deflating Rex Ryan's oversized … err ? ego.
A Pats victory would force the Jets to finish the season with a better record than New England if it wants a piece of AFC East jewelry. The chances of that happening — as the Patriots' last four games are home against Carolina (3-5), at Buffalo (3-5, 1-2 AFC East), home against Jacksonville (4-4) and at Houston (5-4) — are slimmer than the NFL's International Series moving to Mars next season.
Even though the numbers are in New England's favor, the Patriots have little interest in a simple division title. They're old news in Foxborough, as the 2009 hood ornament will be their seventh since 2001.
It's the Cadillac they're looking for — the 2009 Vince Lombardi model — and the Patriots know the best way to acquire one is through improving on a weekly basis.
"You always control your own destiny," Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather said. "You've still got to go out and play every game. We still have to beat the other teams. We still have to play the Colts and the rest of the teams, too. I can't just say because we won one game that we control our own destiny. Everybody controls their own destiny."