The first step of the Patriots' journey is now complete. They destroyed the Jaguars 35-7 at Gillette Stadium on Sunday to wrap up their first AFC East title in two years and put the finishing touches on an undefeated home record.
Though it might not seem like much in the long run -- and this is often the case in the New England locker room when the team celebrates anything other than a Super Bowl title -- capturing another division crown is a return to normalcy of sorts in Foxboro.
Prior to last season, the Patriots had won five consecutive AFC East titles and six of seven. This year's championship gives them seven in nine years, a continuation of their unprecedented success among their division rivals.
The postgame malaise in the locker room suggested otherwise. In fact, the only player truly clutching onto his commemorative AFC East hat and T-shirt was cornerback Leigh Bodden, who is appreciative of his newfound success. Bodden played for the Lions in 2008 -- the NFL's first 0-16 team.
"I've never been a part of something like this," Bodden said. "I'm definitely excited. I've been in the league for seven years, and I've worked hard, and finally something's come of it. But we're not done. Hopefully, we can do a lot of good things after this."
Bodden's closing remarks represent the cumulative opinion of his teammates. This is just the first step on what they hope is a journey back to the Super Bowl. The Patriots were there as recently as two years ago, which is not a long time by anyone's standards, but it is a sore subject in New England based on the fact their most recent appearance resulted in a shocking loss to the Giants.
To ensure the division title won't be the only completed step on their checklist, the Patriots must do something they haven't accomplished all that often in 2009 -- win consistently on the road.
As either the No. 3 or 4 seed, the Patriots are guaranteed one home game in the playoffs. If they win, they then would head out on the road against one of the AFC's top two teams, Indianapolis or San Diego.
The chances of New England winning in either city look bleak on paper, but it's worth noting the Patriots did lead the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium this year before a deflating fourth-quarter collapse. They have won their last two playoff games against the Chargers, albeit with different personnel on both sides.
The task now is figuring out what to do in the season finale. Since the Patriots don't have a first-round bye, it's likely most of the starters will get some time to rest. This, in essence, will be their bye week. From there, it's anyone's guess which team they'll meet in the playoff opener.
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