FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The gray division championship T-shirt hung in the locker behind Tedy Bruschi. The Patriots linebacker preferred to look ahead.
“I just don’t want one T-shirt,” he said. “I want two more.”
Getting conference and Super Bowl championship shirts seems possible after New England dominated one of its toughest opponents of the season, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28-0 yesterday.
Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes in his 85th consecutive start despite being listed as questionable with a left shin injury. The defense sacked Chris Simms seven times and held its third straight opponent under 200 yards.
And the Patriots (9-5) clinched the AFC East title for the fourth time in five seasons.
“It’s huge for us. We haven’t really played a good game against a good opponent with a good record,” tight end Christian Fauria said. “We needed to keep winning and trying to get better in December.”
After Dec. 1, the Patriots are 3-0 this season and 18-3 in the regular season since 2001.
But in their previous three wins this season, they beat the lowly New Orleans Saints, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. Their other two wins this season against above-.500 teams came on last-minute field goals.
The Bucs came in as a hot team with four wins in five games. But they dropped to 9-5, a half-game behind Carolina (9-4), which leads the NFC South before today’s game in Baton Rouge, La., against New Orleans.
The two-time defending Super Bowl champions — healthier after being hit hard by injuries — don’t have to worry about their division in the remaining regular-season games against the Jets and Miami.
“Until someone beats them in the playoffs, they’re the best team in the NFL,” Simms said.
New England got its first shutout in 36 games, while Tampa Bay was blanked for the first time in 103 games since a 45-0 loss at Oakland on Dec. 19, 1999.
“They have the best quarterback in the league,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. “They have a great coach. They have a physical-laden team. They’re a handful.”
The Patriots outgained the Bucs 336 yards to 138 and have outscored their last three opponents 79-10 on their way to the division title.
“We knew what was at stake when we stepped out on the field,” said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who had a sack for the fourth straight game. “Guys were flying around making plays.”
And pushing around blockers.
“Lack of intensity didn’t have anything to do with it,” Gruden said. “The Patriots played a much more physical game than we did.”
The Patriots won for the fifth time in six games after going 4-4 in an injury-plagued first half of the season.
They scored on the game’s opening possession when Brady threw a 1-yard pass to tackle Tom Ashworth, the first career reception for the five-year veteran who was eligible on the play.
New England forced the Bucs to punt on their first four series before the offense took over again with two touchdowns in the last 2:08 of the first half, a 3-yard run by Corey Dillon and a 16-yard pass from Brady to David Givens.
Dillon made it 28-0 early in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard pass from Brady as Tampa Bay, which had allowed the third fewest points in the NFL, gave up its second most of the season.
Brady “moved around in the pocket and stepped up,” coach Bill Belichick said. “That was the key in a couple big plays that we had.”
The Patriots’ defensive front seven is healthy and playing aggressively, a bad combination for Simms, who had been sacked 19 times and thrown 212 passes going into the game. He was 21-for-34 for 155 yards yesterday.
The Patriots shut down an outstanding runner for the third straight week. Carnell “Cadillac” Williams gained 23 yards on 14 carries. The Jets’ Curtis Martin had 29 yards on 15 runs and Buffalo’s Willis McGahee had 3 yards on eight carries.
Williams entered the game with five 100-yard outings and 924 yards rushing.
Brady set a career-high with 3,888 yards this season after completing 20 of 31 passes for 258 yards.
Then the Patriots got their championship clothing.
“This is what you get for clinching the division,” Fauria said. “You get a hat and I also got a T-shirt, so it doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t put a ring on your finger. It doesn’t get you into the Super Bowl.”
But it does get you closer.
Notes — The Patriots shut out an opponent in the first quarter for the eighth time in 10 games. … The Bucs managed 30 yards on 18 rushes while losing 47 on seven sacks.