MIAMI, Fla. —
Savoring victory in the visitors' locker room, the New England Patriots wore division champion caps and T-shirts. Lately they get new ones every year.
With a quarter of the regular season still to go, the Patriots clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title Sunday by beating familiar foil Miami 23-16.
The Patriots (9-3) improved to 5-0 in the division this year and defeated the Dolphins for the fifth time in a row. They won their 12th consecutive December game, and they're assured of their 12th winning season in a row.
They believe they're just getting going.
"This is when the best teams really start to separate themselves,'' quarterback Tom Brady said. "You have to continue to get better and better and better.''
While a playoff berth is assured, the Patriots trail Houston by two games in the race for the No. 1 conference seed.
"We have a bigger goal than this,'' tight end Aaron Hernandez said. "This is a start, but we've got to keep going.''
New England's on a roll with six consecutive victories, but there was nothing dazzling about the latest win.
Instead, Dolphins mistakes proved pivotal. A botched punt, a roughing-the-punter penalty and a fumble by Miami resulted in 17 New England points, and another penalty negated a Dolphins touchdown. In addition, Ryan Tannehill twice missed an open Brian Hartline deep.
As a result, the Dolphins (5-7) hurt their already slim playoff chances.
"Too many mistakes,'' coach Joe Philbin said. "To beat a good opponent in December, you have to play better.''
The Patriots finished with a season-low 321 yards. Brady went 24 for 40 for 238 yards with four sacks, and even threw an interception for the first time during the winning streak.
But with New England nursing a 20-13 edge midway through the fourth quarter, Brady led a 16-play drive that took more than seven minutes and set up Stephen Gostkowski's third field goal.
"It's always good to win,'' coach Bill Belichick said. "It's not about the stats, it's about wins.''
The drive that sealed the victory included 10 rushes by Stevan Ridley for 46 yards.
"We pounded away on a great defense, and they finally gave in a little,'' Ridley said.
Miami defensive ends Cameron Wake and Jared Odrick spent an extended time together on the sideline during the decisive drive. They declined to second-guess their coach.
"There was a different rotation this game, just the way we scheduled it,'' Odrick said.
Brady was intercepted for the first time in 203 attempts, and for only the fourth time this season. His passer rating was a season-low 74.8.
"We got after him, just not good enough,'' Odrick said.
Trevor Scott led New England's stout defensive effort with two sacks, including one to force a fumble that set up a field goal. Jerod Mayo sacked Tannehill on third down midway through the fourth quarter, forcing the Dolphins to settle for a field goal.
The Patriots' Wes Welker tied Jerry Rice's NFL record by making at least 10 receptions for the 17th time. He had 12 catches for 103 yards and a score.
Tannehill went only 13 for 29 for 186 yards, and twice he failed to connect with Hartline for potential long gains.
"We just didn't hit the shots that were there,'' Tannehill said. "I'm still kicking myself.''