By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots are out here essentially spotting their opponent a whole quarter in a playoff game. And they’re still winning by 21 points.
Now, that may say more about the quality of the Tennessee Titans than it says about the quality of the Patriots. That would be a fair assessment.
Nevertheless, the Patriots proved on Saturday night with a 35-14 victory over the Titans in the divisional playoff round, that they are simply in a different class from much of the rest of the league — including a team coming off a road playoff win.
We’ve seen games like Saturday night before. Tom Brady’s offense picked up one first down before looking rusty on consecutive incompletions on passes intended for Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks, leading to a punt. The defense forced a Tennessee punt, but the Patriots once again stalled out near midfield, leading to another punt.
The Titans then drove methodically down the field, 95 yards on 11 plays, capped off with a brilliant pitch-and-catch by Marcus Mariota and Corey Davis. Improbably, the Titans held a 7-0 lead through 15 minutes of football. Perhaps this would be a game!
Or, perhaps not.
After gaining 67 total yards, scoring zero points and picking up three first downs in the first quarter, the Patriots went on to gain 372 yards, pick up 25 first downs, and score 35 unanswered points over the next 39 minutes to completely eliminate any and all hope the Titans may have had of competing in the football game.
We need not speak at length too much about the Patriots beating the inferior Titans, but the fact that the Patriots essentially took a full quarter to warm up (and wake up) is at least a bit humorous in retrospect.
Also, I lied. We’re going to speak at length about that win, because that’s what the leftover thoughts are for.
–Folks always wonder why and how the Patriots win with such consistency every single year. There’s no simple answer. But I think one of the multitude of reasons was on display in this game.
Look, penalty calls every which way over the course of a game and the course of a season. From a team’s perspective, that really can’t always be controlled. What can be controlled is how a team responds to those penalty calls. And the disparity between the Titans’ response and the Patriots’ response was stark on Saturday night.
After a debatable offensive pass interference penalty went against Eric Decker, Marcus Mariota threw incomplete on third-and-14. All-Pro punter Brett Kern then made a poor punt, giving the Patriots the ball near midfield. The Patriots drove 48 yards on six plays, a drive that ended with James White going untouched for a five-yard touchdown on a play they’ve run before after “borrowing” it from the Chiefs in Week 1.
The Patriots got a break and they took full advantage.
Same thing later in the second quarter, when a false start on Geneo Grissom turned into a neutral zone infraction on Brynden Trawick. The Titans were mad! The Patriots went ahead and turned it into their longest drive of the night — a 91-yard touchdown drive that ended up resulting in the game-winning points.
There are going to be calls made in every game. The Patriots aren’t perfect in overcoming some questionable ones (Week 4 at home vs. Carolina), but more often than not, they respond a lot better than their opponent.
–Maybe the game won’t get broken down for its X’s and O’s too much, but one thing you have to like is that the Patriots weren’t afraid to go to Rob Gronkowski when he was matched up 1-on-1 with Titans safety Kevin Byard. That’s an All-Pro vs. All-Pro matchup, and Gronkowski won the bout by unanimous decision.
On a third-and-1 on the opening possession, Gronkowski ran through contact by a linebacker at the line and then ran a corner route, gaining a couple of yards of separation on Byard. Brady threw a perfect pass for a 14-yard reception:
In the second quarter, Byard was lined up in man coverage on Gronkowski out by the left sideline. Byard was essentially living inside Gronkowski’s shoulder pads:
Gronkowski still did what he needed to do (see: a pro’s pushoff) to stop on a dime and make a 7-yard reception on third-and-4.
Later that same drive, the Titans went into an awesome zone defense that led to zero human beings existing anywhere near Rob Gronkowski, which was a unique strategy:
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Gronkowski once again found himself in tight man coverage with Byard. He still made a catch for 16 yards.
And it was Gronkowski who ended that drive with a 4-yard touchdown catch over … Byard.
Again, that’s Kevin Byard, a second-year safety who was named First Team All-Pro this year after tying for the league lead with eight interceptions. He’s a budding star in this league. But he just got served a healthy dose of Gronkowski and Brady, turning him into the human embodiment of “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” after the game.
“You try to be physical with him, but you turn around and the ball is already in his chest because Brady is throwing missiles,” Byard said. “Definitely a great challenge and I feel like every time he caught the ball it was contested.”
–Gronkowski also broke his biggest play of the night against the Titans’ best player, Wesley Woodyard. Gronkowski lined up as a fullback before motioning to the right side of the line. He streaked right up the middle of the field, past Woodyard, before breaking slightly toward the corner. He hauled in the catch from Brady before fighting off Woodyard with a stiff-arm and running for an extra eight yards or so.
When Gronkowski is on, there’s really not a man alive who can stop him.
–I found it to be unbelievable that Gronkowski now ranks second all time in postseason receiving yards by a tight end, and he has the most postseason touchdown receptions in history among tight ends. It’s incredible because for one, Gronkowski is only 28 years old and figures to have at least four or five seasons of dominance in him, provided he avoids major injury. But secondly, due to that injury history of his, he’s missed essentially three full postseasons in seven NFL seasons (2012, when he left his only playoff game after re-injuring his arm, and the entirety of the 2013 and 2017 playoffs).
His 10 touchdown receptions are three more than any other tight end, and with 835 yards, he’s now just 13 receiving yards away from passing Dallas Clark for most postseason receiving yards of all time. He’s seven receptions away from passing Clark for the all-time tight end record in that category too.
So I guess I’m torn between two areas of incredulity: How Gronkowski ranks so highly at such a young age despite the missed time, and how the Patriots won a Super Bowl without him last year.
–The Patriots recorded eight sacks in this game. That’s almost 20 percent of the regular-season total of 42. A lot of that had to do with good coverage downfield, which was to be expected given Tennessee’s lack of truly dynamic receiving options. But obviously, a tremendous amount of credit goes to the defensive line.
On the first sack of Mariota, all three of the D-linemen — Trey Flowers, Adam Butler, Deatrich Wise — won their battles, with Wise ultimately recording the sack while getting tackled by Taylor Lewan.
Wise got the sack, but Butler split the gap between center Ben Jones and right guard Josh Kline to collapse the pocket, while Trey Flowers simply bull-rushed right tackle Jack Conklin to help force Mariota to be uncomfortable. All the while, Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers bluffed a blitz, which led to some hesitancy in the middle of the Titans’ line. Left guard Quinton Spain ended up not blocking anybody on the play, and running back Derrick Henry left the backfield when it appeared he had nobody to block.
–We won’t analyze every sack, but I do think Butler deserves recognition for the hard work he displayed on his takedown of Mariota. Butler lined up on the center and rushed off Jones’ right shoulder. Butler burst into the backfield, and Mariota stepped up to avoid the pressure. Yet Butler stuck with it, and ended up running a wide loop, circling back and recording the sack:
–Adam Butler was just one of two undrafted Butlers getting a lot of defensive snaps on Saturday night. It was hard to look at the defense and not kind of marvel at the unique way which Bill Belichick works.
Marquis Flowers, who was deemed not good enough to be on the Cincinnati Bengals, played 66 percent of the defensive snaps.
Eric Lee, who wasn’t good enough to be on the Buffalo Bills, played 31 percent.
Kyle Van Noy, deemed not good enough to be on the Detroit Lions, took 67 percent of the snaps.
Ricky Jean-Francois, who was cut by the Packers, played 34 percent of the snaps.
Malcolm Butler is of course a well-established NFL starter, but it’s still noteworthy that he went undrafted out of West Alabama and played 100 percent of the snaps on Saturday.
Elandon Roberts, a 2016 sixth-round draft pick, took 30 percent of the snaps.
Granted, there was some first- and second-round talent out there in Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty and Malcom Brown. But Belichick is never afraid to take other teams’ garbage (for lack of a better term!) and piece it together. The result on Saturday? The Patriots allowed 267 total yards and 14 points, while recording a franchise playoff record eight sacks and holding Tennessee to 5-for-15 on third down.
–Tom Brady did Tom Brady things, throwing for 300-plus yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. Maybe the touchdown “pass” to James White rubs some people the wrong way statistically, but I say it helps even out some of the passes that should have been touchdowns, or the times that PI penalties led to one-yard touchdown runs instead of passing touchdowns. It’s not a big deal.
But what went overlooked was how Brady played after getting absolutely wrecked in a Jurell Casey/Derrick Morgan sandwich late in the first quarter. After releasing a pass to Dion Lewis, Brady got sandwiched between the 305-pound Casey and the 261-pound Morgan. Apologies for the blur, but the ouch factor still shows:
Brady could have let the play clock run out the final seconds of the quarter after that, but, you know, he has a warrior spirit about him. So he got up, called a play, and handed off Dion Lewis for a six-yard run on second-and-5. Coming out of the break for the second quarter, he went 3-for-3 for 50 yards and a touchdown.
He’s a tough fellow, is what I’m saying.
–The Titans allowed five rushing touchdowns all season long, fewest in the NFL. They allowed Brandon Bolden to run for a touchdown. Brandon Bolden hasn’t run or a touchdown since November of 2014. He’s run for six touchdowns in his six-year career, and before Saturday night, he had been handed the ball just eight times in his postseason career.
This is why people who gamble on sports should not gamble on sports. There’s no way you can ever know what will happen.
–Dion Lewis was, once again, phenomenal. But it wasn’t about the jukes or the jump cuts or the power runs. On this night, it was just about speed. Nobody could cover him, and he ended up gaining 141 yards from scrimmage (62 rushing, 79 receiving).
His biggest play was the one where at first glance it appeared like he kept his cheeks off the turf for a remarkable 50-yard touchdown. Replay showed that he was down at the 19-yard line (the cheeks touched, folks), but what stood out to me on that play was that it was incredibly slow to develop but it still worked to perfection.
After Gronkowski motioned left to right pre-snap, Gronkowski broke toward the middle of the line as if to wham block. Brady faked an inside handoff to Lewis, which drew the attention of the defense:
Brady then faked the end-around to Cooks, which further kept the defense away from the side of the field to which Lewis would soon thereafter escape:
Lewis’ eyes must have been the size of moon pies when he turned after making the catch and saw an entire open field in front of him:
That’s just preposterous.
I came into the night expecting very little out of Dick LeBeau’s defense. I got what I expected.
–Chris Hogan caught a touchdown and appeared to be healthy, which was probably fun for him. But the most fun part of Hogan’s night was definitely when he CLEANED OUT Wesley Woodyard on a block for Lewis:
Just imagine how much more well-balanced you’d be in your life if you got to occasionally do something like that to somebody at your workplace. All your pent-up frustration, all the rage you bury deep within on your dreadful commute through 2 mph traffic, just … gone.
Maybe I’m projecting. Let’s move on.
–Hey, thank goodness we have the pylon cam to give us unblocked views of critical plays. You can really see all the important things you need to see from that thing:
–It wouldn’t be a Patriots game without a solid implementation of a Zero Humans defensive package, now would it?
Amendola caught 11 passes for 112 yards and six first downs. So valuable, that man. It helps when the Titans just kind of let him go.
It also helps when Amendola and Brady can operate on some foreign wavelength to turn this into a 12-yard gain:
Amendola explained that one thusly: “We locked eyes early and I could tell he was thinking about it.”
–My favorite moment of the night? That would be when Bill Belichick threw a challenge flag on a clear Eric Decker catch with 4:15 remaining in the fourth quarter of a 35-7 football game.
The Patriots were on the verge of advancing to their record seventh straight AFC title game as they continue an unprecedented run of success. Bill was busy playing with his challenge flag.
Bill’s the ultimate football guy. The last thing he wanted Saturday night was for that football game to end.