FOXBOROUGH – You know how it is. The first day back at work after vacation can take a while to get readjusted.
Granted, the Patriots weren’t exactly sunning themselves on a beach somewhere tropical these past couple of weeks, but it’s not uncommon for teams coming off a Wild Card Weekend bye – even Bill Belichick’s teams – to experience rust during the Divisional round.
That’s what appeared to be the case during the first quarter Saturday night against Tennessee.
“I guess you could say that,” running back Dion Lewis acknowledged after the Patriots offense overcame a slow start on its first two possessions. “You’ve just got to be patient with the game and let the game come to us. I think we did a great job coming to the sideline, making adjustments, and playing fast.”
Eschewing their natural inclination to defer after winning the coin toss, the Patriots took the ball, hoping to strike first on the scoreboard and put Tennessee on the defensive right off the bat. It didn’t work, however. New England drove to around midfield on the game’s opening drive, but had to punt.
Defensively, the game plan for New England was simple: shut down the Titans’ running game and keep QB Marcus Mariota in the pocket, forcing him to beat them with his arm rather than his more dangerous legs. If the Titans had any chance of winning this game, it would be on the strength of Mariota’s scrambling ability accompanied by big back Derrick Henry.
That’s exactly how Tennessee was able eventually to mount its first scoring drive at the end of the first stanza. Before that, Tennessee’s D did a good job of shutting down Lewis, who was almost all of New England’s offense in the final two games of the regular season.
After Tennessee scored, Lewis got on track by getting involved in the passing game, while backfield mate James White – fresh off an ankle injury that has sidelined him since the Steelers game – returned to help shoulder the burden on the ground and through the air. Within a four-minute span to start the second quarter, White scored a touchdown each way.
“[Offensive coordinator Josh] McDaniels did a great job putting tempo in the game plan and I think it hurt [the Titans] a little bit tonight,” White observed. “As an offense, I think we were well-prepared, everyone was on the same page, and we executed pretty well.”
“We just had to settle into the game,” added Lewis. “Everybody calmed down... We started playing with a faster pace. I think that really helped us. Guys were just ready to play. The first two drives started a little slow, but we picked it up after that.”
The Patriots’ defense did as well. After allowing Mariota to scramble on the first couple of drives, New England clamped down on the young QB, sacking him eight times in total and limiting Henry to only 28 yards on 12 carries.
“When you can really limit an offense to being one-dimensional, just passing, taking away their run game, which takes away play-action, it just allows you to play a lot freer and a lot faster,” safety/co-captain Duron Harmon explained. “Kudos to the defensive line, what they did, how they controlled the run game and got consistent pressure. We definitely couldn’t have had this performance without them today.”
“When it came to third down,” said rookie DE Deatrich Wise, who registered a pair of Mariota sacks, “the pass rushers started doing their stuff. We just crushed the pocket down and made plays. We just knew if we could push the line of scrimmage back and get [Henry] bouncing out, then he’ll be less effective in the run.”
“They played lights-out,” White said of his teammates on defense. “They’re getting better each and every week. I always have confidence in those guys.”
With Tennessee unable to move the ball, Brady and the offense had plenty more opportunities to pad their lead, which they did relative ease.
Not only were the Patriots expected to win this game, they were supposed to do so in dominant fashion, according to almost anyone who follows pro football. The slow start notwithstanding, this game unfolded pretty much as planned.
“It’s crazy, right? I’m spoiled,” smiled Harmon, who’ll suit up for his fifth such affair next week. “Honestly, man, it’s a blessing. It’s a testament to the work we put in here. Coach Belichick does a great job of making sure we’re ready to play each and every day, each and every week. He prepares us, he gets us ready, he gets the most out of every single player in here. That’s why we continue to be able to compete in the AFC Championship Game.”
There’s a popular Hollywood film, called “Remember the Titans,” which chronicles the championship season of a high school team. In the fourth quarter of this playoff contest at Gillette, after Rob Gronkowski caught a Brady TD pass to help make the score 35-7, a fan in the crowd held up a homemade sign saying “Forget the Titans.”
New England can now do that in earnest, as it prepares to host yet another AFC Championship Game next Sunday – the Patriots’ seventh consecutive appearance in the conference title tilt.
“I’m not nervous,” declared Wise. “I just get excited for games like this. That’s what I live for.”