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Patriots nearing 9th division title in 10 years

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Bianca Wilfork could be wearing another new championship T-shirt very soon.

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Her husband, Vince, and his New England Patriots teammates are on the verge of clinching their fourth straight division title. They'd secure it with a win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.

For the team, it would be the ninth in 10 seasons. For the star defensive tackle, it would be his eighth in his nine NFL seasons - and the caps and shirts that come with those titles.

``I collect them and I give them to my wife,'' Wilfork said Thursday. ``That'll be for my wife.''

If AFC East championships are becoming routine, the Patriots take nothing for granted. They're focused not on another first-place finish, sure. But winning just one game, the next game - against the Dolphins (5-6) - is priority No. 1.

``You always want to win your division,'' Wilfork said. ``(But) we take it one game at a time and, hopefully, that one game at a time is good enough at the end.''

Besides, division titles don't guarantee postseason success. Look no further than New England.

Despite winning the AFC East title the past three years, the Patriots lost last season's Super Bowl to the New York Giants, 21-17, and were eliminated in their first postseason game the previous two seasons.

Throughout the league, in Bill Belichick's other 12 seasons as New England's coach, four teams that didn't win their divisions went on to become Super Bowl champions.

And, remember, only two of the four division winners in each conference get a first-round bye. If the season ended today, the Patriots (8-3) would lose out on those AFC seeds to the Houston Texans (10-1) and Baltimore Ravens (9-2).

So they can't afford to look past the Dolphins, or anyone else for that matter. Down the road, in fact, Houston and the San Francisco 49ers (8-2-1) are on tap.

But that's for another day.

``The fewer games there are, the more important they become,'' Belichick said. ``With each game, we play one less and each one becomes bigger.''

Either way, Belichick and his players consistently play down all their division titles.

``It's very important'' to win one again this year, quarterback Tom Brady said before quickly turning his focus to the next game. ``We're always trying to win every game we play. And, certainly, playing against the Dolphins - a team we know very well playing them twice a year - it would to be a nice little day if we can go down there (and win).''

Still, modest or not, nonchalant about it or not, the Patriots' division dominance is simply extraordinary.

Over the past nine seasons, they lead the NFL with eight division titles. They might have been nine-for-nine if Brady hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 opener. During that nine-year stretch, the Indianapolis Colts have seven division championships. No other team has more than five.

Of last year's eight division champions, only the Patriots were repeat winners from 2010.

And under Belichick, they've finished first nine times, second twice and fifth once, his first year (2000). They won the Super Bowl the following season.

This year, they've won their last five games, continuing a trend of improving as the season goes on. They were 8-0 in the second half of the past two seasons and 3-0 so far this year. Back on Oct. 14, New England was tied with the rest of the division at 3-3. The Patriots now lead Miami by three games, and Buffalo and the New York Jets by four.

``My whole career, high school and college, it seems like the longer the season goes, the better I play,'' Wilfork said. ``Nine years now (in the NFL), the same thing. I just prepare well.''

The powerful Wilfork played very well in the Patriots' last game, a 49-19 rout of the Jets on Thanksgiving night. One of his best plays came when he pushed guard Brandon Moore back as Mark Sanchez ran toward them. Sanchez fumbled when he collided with his teammate and safety Steve Gregory picked the ball up and ran for a 32-yard touchdown.

Suddenly, the Patriots led 21-0 just six minutes into the second quarter.

``I haven't paid any attention to that play ever since that game ended,'' Wilfork said. ``I've moved on. We've got games to prepare for. I can't be thinking about one play.''

Once the game was over, though, he had something he was eager to savor. He joined Brady and Gregory in biting into turkey legs before a national audience - a television tradition reserved for stars of Thanksgiving games.

``I just thought about eating, that's all,'' Wilfork said with a smile. ``It actually tasted pretty good, to be honest with you, but it was cold. But it didn't matter at that point. You're starving. You're hungry. You got a turkey in front of you. It's Thanksgiving. You have to eat it.''

And he didn't have to worry about getting food stains on a brand new championship T-shirt.

That could happen on Sunday.

---

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Copyright 2017 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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