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New England 38, Carolina 6
Posted: Sunday January 06, 2002 07:16 PM
New England Patriots
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Carolina Panthers
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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Ticker) -- The New England Patriots are as hot heading into the postseason as cold as the Carolina Panthers are heading into the offseason.

Cornerback Ty Law brought back an interception for a touchdown and Troy Brown scored on a punt return as the Patriots clinched the AFC East title with a 38-6 rout of the Panthers, who set an NFL single-season record with their 15th straight loss.

Coming off a 5-11 season and a last place finish in the AFC East, the Patriots (11-5) made a six-game turnaround this season and won their first divisional crown since going 10-6 in 1997.

"They've been doing it all year long every week," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They live for the next challenge. I'm really happy for the players and assistant coaches. They put in a lot of time this season."

The run to the division title was more impressive since the Patriots did it with backup quarterback Tom Brady, who posted an 11-3 record after replacing injured starter Drew Bledsoe.

"I think it's a credit to this team," Brady said. "We fought hard all year, especially down the stretch. I think everyone realizes when their number is called that they have to make plays. I really think we're prepared every week."

New England finished the season with a flourish, winning its final six games while securing a first-round bye.

Antowain Smith added a 32-yard touchdown run and Brady passed for a score for New England, which is on its longest winning streak since a seven-game run in 1994.

Meanwhile, the Panthers (1-15) closed a disastrous season under George Seifert, who may have coached his final game with Carolina. Seifert recently indicated he wanted to be back next season, but Carolina could pursue Steve Spurrier, who resigned at Florida on Friday.

Afterward, Seifert reiterated his intention to coach next season.

"The season has been brutal. I plan on coaching next year. I won't resign," he said.

The Panthers, who had been tied with four teams for consecutive losses in a season, won for only time in the opening week with a 24-13 victory at Minnesota. New England was the last team to lose 14 in a row in a season in 1990.

Carolina finished with the NFL's worst record and will have the second pick in April's draft, behind expansion Houston.

Law and Brown each had a hand in sending the Panthers to their latest defeat. Carolina also was its own worst enemy, committing six turnovers.

Law scored on a 46-yard interception return in the first quarter to give New England a 10-0 lead and Brown brought back a punt 68 yards for a score in the third quarter, extending the lead to 17-3.

Snubbed for the Pro Bowl, Brown also set a club record for receptions in a season. He had six catches for 45 yards Sunday, finishing the campaign with 101 receptions for 1,199 yards and five touchdowns.

With the outcome already decided, cornerback Otis Smith also got into the act for the Patriots by returning an interception 76 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

"It's a 16-game season. We didn't come out right the first few games but we kept plugging along," Smith said. "We gained confidence as we got better."

Needing a win to secure the division, the Patriots got off to a good start, moving 52 yards in 11 plays on their first possession.

Brady had a key completion to Brown on a 3rd-and-5 play to keep the drive alive and also had completions of 12 yards to David Patten and 17 yards to fullback Marc Edwards, moving the ball to the Carolina 5.

But after a holding penalty set the Patriots back, they had to settle for Adam Vinatieri's 19-yard field goal.

It did not take the Patriots long to extend the lead after a big play by their defense on Carolina's ensuing possession.

Chris Weinke had his pass intended for fellow rookie and Pro Bowler Steve Smith intercepted by Law, who returned the ball down the left sideline before cutting to the middle and finding his way into the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown.

Weinke, who struggled all afternoon, committed another miscue on his next throw when he was picked by Smith, who brought back the interception 26 yards for a score. The TD was nullified by a holding penalty on the return, but the Pats had the ball at Carolina 34.

The Heisman Trophy winner at Florida State in 2000, Weinke went just 15-of-36 for 144 yards and three interceptions Sunday. He finished his rookie season with 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.

"It's been a long season," Weinke said. "We weren't capable of winning today and that is tough. It's going to leave a bit taste in my mouth in the offseason."

Following the miscue, the Patriots moved to the Carolina 1. But on 4th-and-goal, Smith fumbled and safety Mike Minter recovered for Carolina.

With Richard Huntley leading the way, the Panthers finally got on the board later in the second quarter. He had runs of 12 and 25 yards and a 23-yard reception on a 3rd-and-9 play to keep a drive alive.

Huntley carried 25 times for a season-high 168 yards.

The Panthers moved inside the 10, but settled for John Kasay's 29-yard field goal, making it 10-3 with 6:25 left in the half.

Brown gave the Patriots some breathing room in the third quarter. He caught Todd Sauerbrun's punt on his own 32, broke a tackle at the 46 and cut to the middle before racing for a 68-yard TD, giving New England a 17-3 lead.

Kasay converted from 40 yards with 4:46 left in the quarter but New England took control thereafter.

Brady had completions of nine and 17 yards to Brown, moving the Patriots to the Carolina 34. One play later, Smith broke off a run down the left sideline for a 32-yard TD and a 24-6 lead for the Patriots with 1:29 left in the third quarter.

Smith carried 21 times for 81 yards. He finished his first season in New England with 1,157 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Weinke committed another miscue early in the fourth quarter when he fumbled and defensive end Willie McGinest recovered for New England at the Panthers 9.

Two plays later, Brady found tight end Jermaine Wiggins for a five-yard TD pass, making it 31-6 with 10:38 remaining. Brady went 17-of-29 for 198 yards with that touchdown and two interceptions.

Smith capped the impressive afternoon for the Patriots with his 76-yard return for a score with under six minutes left.