Patriots

Patriots

What seems like an annual rite of passage every winter in New England occurred while most of its residents were sleeping on Monday night. 

When the Dolphins lost at home to the Giants, 31-24, the Patriots clinched their seventh consecutive AFC East title thanks to a strength of victory tie-breaker. It marked their 13th division championship in 16 seasons under coach Bill Belichick. 

Through 14 weeks of the regular season, the Patriots are the first AFC team to clinch a division title this year. The only other NFL team to have its division locked up are the Panthers, whose record sits at an unblemished 13-0. 

The quickest the Patriots ever secured their division was in 2007 when they had the AFC East won by Week 12. In 2012, they had it locked up by Week 13. And in 2003 and 2004, it was theirs by Week 14. Last year, the Patriots had finished off the rest of the division by Week 15.

At the moment, the Patriots are the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but they have not yet clinched a first-round bye. They'll look to improve their standing against the Titans next Sunday, and they'll finish the season with division games against the Jets and Dolphins. 

Inside the Patriots locker room, games that clinch division championships are known as "hat and t-shirt games." But since Patriots players were off on Monday when they officially clinched, perhaps they'll have some new gear waiting for them when they arrive to Gillette Stadium for meetings and a film review of Sunday's win over the Texans.