For a team supposedly embroiled in controversy, the New England Patriots know how to hide it well. They started slowly, but the Patriots dominated the Tennessee Titans, 35-14, on Saturday night and advanced to their 12th AFC championship game under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and their seventh straight appearance for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
The Patriots will wait until Sunday to find out who they play in the title game at Gillette Stadium next week. It either will be a rematch with the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, whom they beat in a Week 15 thriller at Heinz Field, or the first meeting against the Jacksonville Jaguars that counts (they met in the preseason) since early in the 2015 regular season, a 51-17 New England rout.
The Titans actually struck first in this game, driving 95 yards for a 7-0 edge — rookie Corey Davis’ first career touchdown — to quiet the crowd. Brady and the Patriots’ offense also got off to a slow start, punting twice in their first two possessions despite crossing midfield.
Was it possible that the ESPN report a little over a week ago about strife between the Patriots’ holy trinity of Belichick, Brady and Robert Kraft was having its effect on the team in this game?
The second quarter provided the answer: a resounding no. The Patriots scored three touchdowns on three drives in a 12-minute span to flip the game on its head, with a 21-7 New England edge. They'd never look back in this one.
Perhaps there was more strife on the other sidleline. Six days earlier, Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk said Mike Mularkey "will be our head coach moving forward," but are we sure that still stands now? After a strong first 15 minutes, the Titans faded fast and never seemed to have much of a chance to win.
Although the Patriots might have received some favorable calls from the officials in that early span, including a shaky offensive pass interference call against Eric Decker and a Titans offsides on a punt for an automatic first down, they also dominated the game. The Titans had few defensive answers for the Patriots’ passing game when Brady went with a fast-paced tempo and struggled to move the ball consistently after their first touchdown.
The Titans showed grit the week prior in erasing a 21-3 second-half deficit, but this game was just a different deal. The Patriots’ defense dominated the game after halftime.
Patriots running backs Dion Lewis and James White were the big playmakers early on. Lewis totaled 141 yards from scrimmage (79 receiving, 62 rushing), and White scored two touchdowns. The first one came on a Brady shovel pass, and White took a handoff 6 yards for a score after the Titans gave them a short field with which to work. The second TD was White’s first rushing score since his Super Bowl LI overtime game winner almost a year ago.
Brady finished the game 35-of-53 passing for 337 yards and three touchdown passes, avoiding getting sacked. It was his 26th career playoff victory (which is more than all but three NFL franchises not named the Patriots), and Brady became the oldest QB in NFL history to win a postseason game. After a slow start, he looked dialed in and focused, despite decent early pressure from the Titans, a few missed throws and some dropped passes along the way to victory.
White and Chris Hogan, who caught a touchdown pass and threw a big block on a Lewis reception, both looked good in their returns from injury. White last played in Week 15, and Hogan had missed all but one game since Week 8. Danny Amendola reprised his role as playoff hero by leading the Patriots with 11 receptions for 112 yards, and Rob Gronkowski added six catches for 81 yards and the Patriots' fifth touchdown of the game.
With running backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee inactive, even special-teams ace Brandon Bolden got into the offensive act. He had only 13 carries all season but made it a 28-7 game with a third-quarter TD — his first rushing score since 2014 and his first ever in the postseason.
Brady’s counterpart, Marcus Mariota, played well early. For a quarterback who regressed during the regular season — more interceptions than touchdown passes — he looked composed and was mostly accurate before the game crashed on him. His pass catchers dropped at least four balls, and Decker’s 13-yard completion on 3rd and 4 in the second quarter was wiped out on a suspect call for OPI.
Mariota finished 22-of-37 passing for 254 yards and two TDs and ran for 37 yards. But he wasn’t able to pull out any second-half magic like he did last week and was under constant assault in the second half. The Patriots sacked him a team playoff-record eight times, including seven in the second half, as the early loss of Titans right tackle Jack Conklin to a knee injury caught up to them.
Derrick Henry, who powered the Titans’ wild-card win with more than half of his 156 rushing yards last week coming after contact, couldn’t get going in this one. The Titans fed him early in an attempt to bleed the clock and keep Brady off the field, but the Patriots held him in check with his 11 first-half carries netting a mere 24 yards.
Henry was taken down for a 5-yard loss in the final minute of the first half on what looked like a questionable play call on 4th and 1 as the Titans desperately tried to stop the bleeding, down 14 points. The Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski missed the 53-yard field-goal attempt at the end of the half four plays later, but the tone had been set.
Davis made a brilliant, one-handed catch while falling to the ground and the Patriots’ Malcolm Butler close in coverage after not scoring during the regular season. And Davis tacked on his second score of the game in garbage time in another touchdown against Butler. But those two plays bookended complete dominance by the Patriots, just as talk of their imminent downfall was wafting from the air.