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Atop the Heap … Again

Patriots Clinch AFC East Crown

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick argues a call with head linesman Jim Howey during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

    New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick argues a call with head linesman Jim Howey during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

  • A dry erase board is shown on the Miami Dolphins sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 23-16. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

    A dry erase board is shown on the Miami Dolphins sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 23-16. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leaves the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) looks to pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) cannot hold on to a pass as Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) defends during the first half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley (22) scores a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami . (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) grabs New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) face mask during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • Miami Dolphins wide receiver Davone Bess (15) and running back Reggie Bush look up at the end of the first half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
  • New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick argues a call with head linesman Jim Howey during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
  • A dry erase board is shown on the Miami Dolphins sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 in Miami. The Patriots defeated the Dolphins 23-16. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Miami — Two yards from a touchdown on third down, Tom Brady took the snap and fell to the turf curled around the ball, happy to settle for a field goal.

The high-scoring New England Patriots went conservative yesterday, and the approach paid off with another AFC East championship.

Brady stuck with short throws for much of the afternoon and was content to hand off during a clock-consuming drive in the fourth quarter that helped the Patriots beat Miami 23-16 to clinch their fourth consecutive division title.

“It’s not supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t easy today,” Brady said.

Dolphins mistakes proved pivotal. A botched punt, roughing-the-punter penalty and fumble by Miami resulted in 17 New England points, and another penalty negated a Dolphins touchdown.

The Patriots (9-3) wore championship caps and T-shirts afterward.

“It’s good to be back in the postseason,” coach Bill Belichick said.

The Patriots have won six consecutive games and are assured of their 12th winning season in a row.

The Dolphins (5-7) hurt their already slim playoff chances and lost to New England for the fifth consecutive time.

“Too many mistakes,” Dolphins 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, and Brady went 24-for-40 for 238 yards with four sacks.

But with New England nursing a 20-13 edge midway through the fourth quarter, he led a 16-play drive that took more than seven minutes.

After he curled up on the third-down keeper, Stephen Gostkowski kicked his third field goal to pad the lead.

“It’s always good to win,” Belichick said. “It’s not about the stats, it’s about wins.”

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, but he had at least four passes dropped, including a throw to Wes Welker in the end zone.

And when the Patriots took over at their 20 leading by a touchdown in the fourth period, they produced their best drive of the day.

New England went 77 yards, keeping the ball on the ground on 12 plays, to set up Gostkowski’s field goal with 1:10 left. Stevan Ridley carried 10 times for 46 yards to spark the drive.

“We pounded away on a great defense, and they finally gave in a little,” Ridley 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 Ryan Tannehill on third down midway through the fourth quarter, forcing the Dolphins to settle for a field goal.

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 an open Brian Hartline deep.

Tannehill was most effective running the ball. He finished two keepers with brazen acrobatic leaps, vaulting over the goal line to elude linebacker Rob Ninkovich on a 2-yard touchdown run.

The botched punt on the Dolphins’ opening series led to a New England touchdown. With the ball wet following a brief shower, punter Brandon Fields dropped a low snap and was tackled at his 12. The Patriots scored five players later on Ridley’s 2-yard run.

The roughing-the-punter penalty on Miami’s Jimmy Wilson gave the Patriots a first down deep in their territory, jump-starting a 75-yard drive that ended with Welker’s 7-yard touchdown catch.

Miami’s Reshad Jones made a one-handed interception and returned the ball 30 yards for a touchdown, but the score was negated by a penalty on Reggie Bush for an illegal block. New England then held, and Dan Carpenter kicked a 44-yard field goal.