But it didn't matter much on Saturday night. And it's unlikely to matter during the remainder of their playoff run, which by the look of it on Saturday, is only just beginning.
In their divisional round matchup against the Titans, the Patriots used a 21-0 second-quarter run to shove the Titans into a 14-point halftime hole before proceeding to bury them in the second half, pushing the final scoreline to 35-14.
Once again, the Patriots are one win away from reaching the Super Bowl. Once again, the Patriots got there by thumping an inferior, inexperienced team. Once again, the Patriots will host the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium (against either the Jaguars or Steelers). It's their seventh-straight trip to the conference championship, so this story should sound familiar by now. The Patriots are still very much the indestructible team that they've almost always been under Belichick.
Meanwhile, the Titans' season ends a step further than even they probably expected it go. Nobody expected them to overcome an 18-point lead against the Chiefs a week ago. And nobody expected them to go into Foxboro and leave with a win. There's no shame in losing to the Patriots.
Now, the Titans' offseason has to be all about figuring out a way to continue Marcus Mariota's development. Maybe that means reneging on Mularkey was One remarkable half of football, which was followed by a total dud of a performance in the divisional round, probably shouldn't be enough for the Titans to commit to a coach they were thinking about firing before Week 17. On Saturday night, the Titans played against the best of the NFL, a team the Titans should aspire to become. They came up short by a significant margin. As a result, it's time for the Titans to question if Mularkey is the coach who can get them over the hump. If Saturday's game is any indication, the answer to that question is a resounding no.
Read on for seven more takeaways.
1. A second-quarter blitz
At the end of the first quarter, the Patriots trailed by seven points. The Titans were moving the ball effectively. The Patriots couldn't keep a drive going. It looked like we'd actually get a competitive game.
And then the Patriots' offense made the jump to lightspeed. Using an uptempo offense that relied on Brady's ability to hit his running backs quickly underneath and their ability to break free from would-be tacklers, the Patriots waltzed into halftime holding onto a 21-7 lead.
They got things going with a seven-play, 73-yard drive that featured a heavy dose of Dion Lewis. On the first play of the second quarter, Lewis turned a screen into a 31-yard gain that took the Patriots to the Titans' 19-yard line. From there, Brady hit Lewis again, this time over the middle, for a gain of 14. After James White got stuffed on a run, he took a "pass" from Brady to tie the game at 7-7.
Yes, Brady got credited with a touchdown pass for doing this:
The Titans responded by punting. Again, the Patriots went to work, traveling 48 yards on six plays for another touchdown. Again, White capped off the drive with a touchdown, this one coming on an actual running play. And the Patriots had the lead.
The Titans responded with a punt, again. The Patriots punished them, again. They used a 16-play, 91-yard drive to take a commanding 21-7 lead. This time, Brady threw a legitimate touchdown pass to Chris Hogan, who missed almost the entire second half of the season with a shoulder injury. It turns out, the Patriots might've missed a receiver who caught five touchdowns in nine regular-season games.
He's back now:
In all, those three drives in the second quarter totaled 29 plays, 212 yards, and three touchdowns. And that's how the Patriots took a 14-point lead into halftime. If not for a missed 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski at the end of the half, they would've held a 17-point advantage.
It didn't matter. The Titans weren't going to engineer a double-digit comeback against the Patriots in Foxboro in January. It might've worked in Kansas City, but it wasn't going to work in New England, the place where underdog comebacks go to die. According to NFL Research, the Patriots are now 107-2 when holding a home halftime lead since 2001.
So, mark down halftime as the Titans' time of death.
2. Brady's success vs. LeBeau continues
Brady ate up the Titans' defense by attacking them with quick, underneath passes. He finished 35 of 53 for 337 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, and a 102.5 passer rating. In the process, he passed Brett Favre for the second-most touchdown passes in NFL history (including the postseason).
Nobody should be surprised, of course -- especially Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Brady's been doing this to LeBeau, the long-time defensive coordinator of the Steelers, for a while now.
And that was BEFORE Saturday night's game.
Brady's numbers won't jump off the stat sheet (6.4 YPA), but it's the subtle things that make him the greatest to ever play the game. Look at him nimbly step up in the pocket just a tad to buy enough time for Rob Gronkowski downfield:
Look at him throw across his body and put the perfect amount of touch to extend a Patriots drive on third down:
Look at his ball placement on this touchdown pass to Gronk, who racked up 81 yards.
Reminder: Brady is 40 years old.
3. Patriots backs run wild
But as much as this offensive explosion was about Brady, it was also about the Patriots' running backs. Dion Lewis and James White killed the Titans underneath.
The duo combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns from scrimmage. While White scored the touchdowns, Lewis got the yards.
And don't forget about Brandon Bolden, who rushed for 27 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown that officially put the game away in the third quarter.
The point being, Brady is surrounded by an armada. He's got his deep threat in Brandin Cooks, who didn't really have to contribute on Saturday. He's got his warhammer in Gronk. He's got his dependable targets in Hogan and Danny Amendola. He's got his speedy pass-catching backs in Lewis and White.
How anybody can slow them down is beyond me. If someone eventually does, it'll likely have to do with hitting Brady, something the Titans struggled to do. They failed to sack him.
4. It's not a conspiracy
The Titans lost to the Patriots because they're an inferior team. They were outplayed in every facet of the game. Yes, that includes the penalties.
In the first half, a couple of calls went against the Titans that convinced Twitter that the NFL was rigging the game to favor the Patriots. The first call -- an offense pass-interference penalty on Eric Decker in the second quarter-- was bad. And the result was even worse for the Titans, turning a first down into a third-and-long. After failing to convert on third-and-long, the Titans punted and the Patriots immediately scored.
Remember the Patriots' 91-yard drive in the second quarter, the one that extended their lead to 14 points? Yeah, that series involved a questionable call against the Titans too. After what looked like a three-and-out, the Patriots actually lined up to punt. Before the punt, an official threw a flag due to some movement at the line of scrimmage. It looked like the Patriots would be called for a false start. Instead, the officials decided to call the Titans for a neutral-zone infraction. It was fourth-and-5, which meant the penalty handed the Patriots a fresh set of downs. You know what happened next: The Patriots scored another touchdown.
Later, at the end of the first half, the Titans went for it on fourth-and-1. They called for a Derrick Henry run to the left, which fell remarkably short of the line to gain. Except, it looked like the officials missed a facemask penalty.
The Patriots didn't score, though, as Gostkowski missed a lengthy field goal. But as so many people noticed, the Patriots got the chance to kick a field goal only because the clock operator stopped the clock with exactly one second showing. Because the Patriots are the Patriots, the conspiracy theories began. Is the NFL -- the same league that once suspended Brady four games and took draft picks away from the Patriots because a few footballs were slightly under-inflated during a 38-point blowout -- rigging the game to help the Patriots?
The answer is obviously no.
Did the Patriots get favorable calls at home? Of course! Guess what: So do the Titans!
Patriots had the third-largest penalty differential at home this year, +16. Titans were first at +25.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 14, 2018
Do the Patriots always get the calls at home? Nope!
Penalty differential for Patriots at home (rank in parentheses)— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 14, 2018
2017: +16 (3)
2016: +2 (16)
2015: +4 (14)
2014: -13 (31)
2013: +20 (3)
2012: -3 (23)
2011: +10 (6)
2010: +1 (17)
Was the clock operator a Patriots fan who gave his favorite team an extra second so that they could kick a field goal? Nope.
Some people questioning the one second left on the clock at the end of the half and suggesting home cooking. All clock operators in the playoffs are brought in from other cities. They do not travel in the regular season but do in the playoffs. No home cooking.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) January 13, 2018
It's entirely possible that the NFL's officiating crew experienced a rough night,A week ago the Titans benefited from some questionable calls. On Saturday night, the calls went against them. It happens. It's football. Officials make mistakes all the time. Saturday was no different.
The Titans cannot say they lost this game because of the officials. They lost because they couldn't generate pressure against Brady, they couldn't tackle the Patriots' running backs in space, they couldn't get anything going on offense save for one series in the first quarter, and because Rob Gronkowski is Rob Gronkowski. They lost because the New England Patriots are the best team in football coached by the greatest coach in the history of football.
5. Mariota, Davis had their moments
So yeah, it was a rough night for the Titans. But they did get at least a couple of moments that they'll savor over the offseason.
In the first quarter, Marcus Mariota hooked up with rookie Corey Davis for an incredible 15-yard touchdown that involved a one-handed catch.
For what it's worth, Mariota actually played as well as he could have given the circumstances. He didn't turn the ball over, threw for 254 yards, two touchdowns and a 98.3 passer rating, and added 37 yards on the ground. He just didn't get any help, from his running game, receivers or offensive line.
In garbage time, Mariota hooked up with Davis again for a pretty, but meaningless, touchdown.
Davis finished with 63 yards (in addition to those two touchdowns) on five receptions. His future appears to be bright.
6. Patriots defense stiffens
That Titans' first-quarter touchdown came at the end of an 11-play, 95-yard drive. The Titans would finished with 267 total yards, which means they gained only 172 yards after that series.
Give credit to a Patriots defense that looked like a championship-caliber unit. It racked up eight sacks of Mariota. The Patriots held Derrick Henry to 2.3 yards per carry despite finishing the regular season as the second-worst run defense by yards allowed per carry. It was a complete coaching clinic by rocket scientist Matt Patricia, who is likely to leave in the offseason for his own head-coaching gig.
7. What's next?
The Patriots will host either the Jaguars or Steelers in the AFC title game. If they win, they'll have a chance to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Meanwhile, the Titans will begin preparing for the offseason. They'll pick 25th in the draft.
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