The New England Patriots played a highly contested game against the Buffalo Bills in Week 16, but ultimately came away with a hard-fought 24-17 victory. The win does not only improve the club’s record to 12-3 this season and puts it in a very good position when it comes to earning a first-round playoff bye, it also means that the Patriots can now also add to its legendary trophy case: New England has officially won the AFC East again.
While the Bills were still theoretically alive in the race for the division crown entering the weekend, Saturday’s game sealed the deal for a Patriots team that has now captured it 11 seasons in a row — extending its own NFL record and bringing the total number of AFC East championships since the NFL-AFL merger to 21. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have been more successful when it comes to winning division titles since 1970, having earned 23.
To get a sense for just how incredible of a feat winning 11 straight division titles is, consider this: the longest active streaks that are not held by the Patriots belong to the Kansas City Chiefs, who have been able to capture the AFC West four years in a row, and a New Orleans Saints team that earned the NFC South title three straight times. New England is playing in a different league when it comes to sustained success, even historically speaking.
After all, the longest streak in history before the Patriots broke it was seven straight division titles held by the Los Angeles Rams of the late 1970s. Safe to say that New England’s current run of excellence is an unprecedented one, especially considering that it takes place in the salary cap/free agency era that has been implemented in the 1990s to bring parity to the NFL and get all the teams back to the mean after some short period of time at the top.
“It’s pretty cool. It’s hard to do and it’s a lot of effort, a lot of hard work,” said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady after his team’s division-clinching victory over the visiting Bills. “A lot of people are just putting... day after day, sitting in these chairs, and trying to do what is right for the team. It’s a great reward, it’s a great step for us. And it’s great to control the ability to do that: to win and know that you win the division — it’s pretty cool.”
Brady has of course been a driving force behind New England’s success over the past 11 years and going further back. In fact, the future Hall of Famer has been able to help the Patriots to 17 division titles in the 18 years since becoming the team’s starting quarterback in 2001. With Brady at the helm and not getting injured in the first game like in 2008, it only missed the AFC East title once: in 2002, the 9-7 Patriots finished second in the division.
17 years, 16 titles and five world championships later, New England again reigns supreme in the East. And Brady made sure to point out that a lot of people contributed to that, actively or passively, that can now enjoy the moment while not letting the bigger goals get out of sight: “Happy for us, happy for our team and our coaches and our families and our fans, and hopefully we can build on it and go play great next week.”
The Patriots’ championship shirts handed out in the locker room are therefore a perfect illustration of the team’s mindset: The East is not enough.