New England Patriots Clinch AFC East for 9th Year in a Row with Win vs. Steelers

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2017

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 29:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots talks with Tom Brady #12 during the fourth quarter of a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Gillette Stadium on October 29, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The New England Patriots secured their ninth straight AFC East title with a 27-24 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, the Patriots have won a division crown 15 times in 18 years.

New England has dominated the AFC East for nearly two decades, and 2017 has been no different. The Patriots are competing against the three other teams in their division, and the Buffalo Bills are the only other East team with a winning record.

With the Patriots assured of a playoff berth and on the way to likely earning a first-round bye, the question now becomes whether they can repeat as Super Bowl champions. New England is the last team go to back-to-back in the Super Bowl after it claimed its second NFL title in 2003 and won again in 2004.

Tom Brady has thrown for 4,163 yards, 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions to lead one of the NFL's most dynamic offensive attacks.

The Patriots defense is another matter. According to Football Outsiders, New England ranks 30th in defensive efficiency. Granted, the team has shown big improvement on that side of the ball after a four-week stretch in which it allowed 128 points to open the season.

The Boston Globe's Ben Volin examined how Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia used various blitz packages that flummoxed the Miami Dolphins in a 35-17 Week 12 win for New England:

"The four-man zone blitz produced four sacks—two by [Elandon] Roberts, one by Trey Flowers, and one by Jones. The Dolphins had no idea where the rush was coming from, and Roberts and [Jonathan] Jones each picked up an uncontested sack with no blocker so much as laying a finger on them. On Roberts's second sack, no Dolphins saw him screaming right up the middle of the defense — not even Moore, who had his head turned to the left."

That encapsulated the defense's overall evolution as the year has unfolded—an evolution that was necessary for a team with title aspirations. New England hasn't improved to the extent it owns an elite defense, but the unit is good enough to complement the electric offense.

The Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints all pose a real threat to the Patriots as they pursue their sixth Super Bowl victory. Still, it's hard to see how New England isn't the favorite to stand tall at Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis.

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