FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The Tennessee Titans came to New England as nearly two-touchdown underdogs on Saturday night, and read directly from the script of overmatched opponents. Tradition dictates these home Patriot playoff games take on the feel of a buy game between Alabama and Mercer amid the SEC slate.
The Patriots at home in the playoffs have become a self-fulfilling prophecy of inevitable victory, opposing fan outrage and a monotonous Storm Trooper march to the next round. And Tennessee adapted, completely and thoroughly, to their role of hopeless and hapless pushover foil. The Titans self-destructed amid a hailstorm of penalties, schematic failures and mind-melting coaching decisions
After dispatching the Titans, 35-14, here on Saturday night, the Patriots will return in a week to host the AFC championship game next Sunday. They’ll play the winner of Sunday’s game between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, and this familiar demolition reminded everyone the aura of invincibility and inevitability that comes with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the postseason.
Is there any doubt that the Patriots will win next week and return to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years? Not if you watched this game with your eyes open. The blowout of the Titans marked the eighth consecutive Patriots home playoff victory, clinched their seventh straight AFC title game appearances and left little doubt that victory next weekend is a foregone conclusion.
It could be Pittsburgh, who the Patriots barely beat last month. It could be Jacksonville, which has been revived under Doug Marrone’s iron fist. But Saturday night offered a three-hour reminder of why the opposition won’t really matter. Opponents here melt in the cold, puddles across the line of scrimmage.
For a football nation sick of Bill Belichick’s hoodies, Brady’s precision and a New England love affair, be ready. The relentless odes to Belichick’s genius, Brady’s defiance of age – “He’s 40!” – and Rob Gronkowski’s endearing goofiness. It would have been easier to find bare-chested tailgaiters in the 13-degree wind chill than overt skeptics on Saturday, as the Patriots rattled off 35 straight points after trailing 7-0 in the first quarter.
Brady finished 35-of-53 for 337 yards, taking the easy chunks of yardage as the Titans resolutely vowed with religious devotion to avoid covering New England’s tailbacks. James White finished with four catches for 29 yards and Dion Lewis finished with nine catches for 79 yards, as Tennessee’s scheme revolved around making sure Gronkowski didn’t beat them. That left New England’s backs running free, allowed Brady to get his rhythm and the rest is the all-too familiar afterglow of a Patriots playoff victory. (Gronk still ended up with six catches, 81 yards and a touchdown and Danny Amendola chipped in 11 catches for 112 yards.)
The second quarter unfolded as an infomercial on how not to play against the Patriots. New England’s first two scoring drives that quarter came when Belichick channeled his inner-Chip Kelly and went up-tempo.
Veteran Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau appeared about as familiar with that wrinkle as he’d be adjusting Snapchat filters. The Patriots stormed down the field in two drives that took less than five combined minutes. They exploited Tennessee by getting lush chunks of yardage out of the backfield, with White fittingly capping on both drives with touchdowns. (In perhaps a nod to White’s college, the house DJ at Gillette borrowed the Madison staple, “Jump Around” by House of Pain, and the stadium press box shook in a way that would make Wisconsin fans proud.)
Trailing 14-7, the Titans handed away the game on the next drive when Mike Mularkey elected to not go on fourth-and-2 in New England territory. Somehow, he punted. This was coaching equivalent of waving a white flag on the sideline, as Mularkey showed less situational awareness than Borat and his team may as well have headed back to the buses after that decision.
After waving the white flag, the yellow ones flew for the Titans. They finished the game with 10 penalties for 62 yards, the night an elegy to the undisciplined. Most notably, Tennessee committed three penalties that enabled a 16-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that essentially put the game out of reach late in the second quarter. That included a neutral zone infraction that wiped out a Patriots punt and began the unflinching march to a Chris Hogan 4-yard touchdown catch.
Tweets flew around about the officials favoring New England, as New England took a 21-7 lead with 1:52 remaining. (The segment of the Patriots media that defends the team with a vigor usually reserved for Fox News hosts would point to SpyGate and deflate-gate. And this is the type of inane banter we’ll be subjected to until kickoff in Minneapolis on Feb. 4.)
The weeks leading up to the playoffs centered on the looming last call for this Patriots dynasty. The lights are coming on sooner than later, tabs will be cashed out and eventually New England’s seemingly eternal role as the center of the professional football universe will be ceded. But that looks unlikely this year. And there’s little reality to the notion that any of the central figures in the controversial ESPN story about tensions in the organization – Brady, Belichick and team owner Bob Kraft – will be elsewhere when next season starts, too. Despite Father Time chasing Tom Brady’s backside and Bill Belichick entering his twilight, there’s still some time left in this run.
But for the immediate future and beyond, the script is unfolding in an all-too familiar manner. Everything is falling in place for the Patriots to return to the Super Bowl, as next week’s game has taken the feel of more of a coronation than a contest.
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