Another year and another workmanlike performance in the divisional round for the Patriots. New England's methodical 35-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans was almost routine in its efficiency, and more importantly it advanced the Patriots to their seventh consecutive AFC Championship Game.
Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots divisional round win at Gillette Stadium.
-When the Julian Edelman was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in the preseason, some worried about the offense's ability to maintain drives. That wasn't really a problem most of the season and it certainly wasn't on Saturday night. The Patriots converted 11 of 17 third downs, and that included two meaningless failures on the final two attempts late in the fourth quarter, one of which was a Brian Hoyer kneel down. One big part of that execution was the play of Danny Amendola, who caught 11 passes for 112 yards. Amendola has been a consistently clutch performer in the postseason and has always managed to reasonably replicate Edelman when called upon. Bill Belichick does his best to manage Amendola during the regular season due to the wideout's chronic knee problems, leading to a smaller role in various individual games. But when the playoffs come around and the need to maintain his health over the long term no longer is a factor, Amendola always seems to come true. He did so Saturday night and turned in the first 100-yard performance in the postseason of his career.
-There has been a different element to the Patriots offense since Dion Lewis took over lead back duties halfway through the season. Lewis once again was the catalyst of the attack, carrying 15 times for 62 yards while adding nine catches (on 10 targets) for 79 more. He almost had a 50-yard touchdown as well but replays showed he was down and the call was overturned. Lewis didn't dominate on the ground by any means but he turned in some of the most impressive short runs you'll see, executing dynamic jump cuts in the hole to shed would-be tacklers consistently all night long. His presence has added a presence to the offense that was lacking early on when Mike Gillislee was the lead dog. Gillislee, incidentally, was inactive with a knee injury for the second game in a row.
-For the second game in a row the Patriots won the toss but elected to take the ball. Belichick said after doing so in the season finale against the Jets that the deteriorating weather was a factor in his choice, as he explained he felt it might get more difficult offensively as the game progressed. The weather was similarly cold for the Titans game with a wind chill of 13 degrees at kickoff and expected to drop. Unlike against the Jets, the Patriots were unable to open the game with a touchdown as they were forced to punt after recording just one first down.
-There was a key juncture late in the first half that really swung the momentum in the Patriots favor. New England held a 14-7 lead but were forced to punt following a three-and-out deep in their own territory. As Ryan Allen and his teammates lined up, Geneo Grissom rocked back in his stance, drawing a false start penalty. Referee Ron Torbert made the announcement and it looked like Allen would be pushed back 5 yards on the 9, but the officials gathered for a moment and changed course. Torbert got back on the mike and announced that Brynden Trawick was in the neutral zone and caused Grissom to move, giving the Patriots the first down. Replays appeared to show Grissom moving before Trawick was in the neutral zone, but it didn't matter. New England then needed 13 more plays before they finished off the 91-yard drive with a 4-yard pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan. The Titans committed two additional penalties on the drive to give the Patriots first downs, and for all intents and purposes the game was over at that point. Torbert was asked about the play after the game through a pool reporter and didn't shed much light on the call.
"The line judge saw a defensive lineman jump into the neutral zone, did not see the guard across from him move," Torbert said. "The umpire saw the guard move and threw his flag for a false start, which is what we initially announced. When we got together and discussed it and pieced together that the defensive lineman across from the guard jumped in the neutral zone and caused the false start, that's when we changed the ruling from a false start to a neutral zone infraction."
-Earlier in the second quarter the Titans appeared to have a third-down conversion when Marcus Mariota hit Eric Decker for 13 yards on third-and-four. But Decker was called for pass interference, negating the completion. Tennessee was unable to convert the ensuing third-and-14 and had their chance to break the 7-7 tie eliminated. It was the type of ticky-tack call that Rob Gronkowski has drawn occasionally in the past, and the Patriots certainly benefitted from it this time around.
-The run defense continued its resurgence of late with another solid performance against Derrick Henry and the Titans. Henry was instrumental in Tennessee's comeback win in Kansas City with 156 yards rushing but he enjoyed none of that success against New England's stout front, which included Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Ricky Jean Francois together as down linemen at times. Henry carried 12 times for just 28 yards and was never a factor. He was also stuffed on a fourth-and-one in the third quarter, losing 5 yards when he tried to bounce an inside run out to the left. That run-stopping effort came on the heels of the Patriots stellar work against Bilal Powell against the Jets in the season finale.
-Brady was once again surgical in the postseason racking up 337 yards through the air on 35 of 53 passing with three touchdowns. It was Brady's 10th career postseason game with three or more touchdowns, which moved him ahead Joe Montana for the most all time. Brady and the Patriots advanced to the AFC title game for the seventh year in a row, extending the all-time record.
-Generating pressure on the passer hasn't been a strength of the Patriots defense this season but that wasn't the case against the Titans. New England set a franchise postseason record with eight sacks of Mariota, including two each from Deatrich Wise and Geneo Grissom. Marquis Flowers, Trey Flowers, Adam Butler and Jean Francois also got to Mariota as the front did an excellent job of keeping the mobile quarterback from escaping the pocket too often.
-After watching Cam Fleming start the previous five games at right tackle, LaAdrian Waddle regained his spot in the playoff opener against the Titans. Waddle played well in the first half but was limping early in the third quarter and Fleming replaced him for the remainder of the game. He was announced as questionable with a knee injury. A postgame report indicated Waddle's injury could be serious and may put the rest of his postseason in jeopardy, although further tests had yet to take place.
-After punting on their first two possessions the Patriots got things going thanks to upping the tempo. The Titans held a 7-0 lead when New England decided to hurry things up and it worked. Brady went away from the stagnant running game and used some short throws and screens to get the Patriots moving quickly. The Titans defense struggled trying to corral Lewis and James White in space and that seemed to be the game plan. Lewis took a well-designed screen 50 yards for a touchdown, at least that's what the officials originally ruled. Lewis was tackled after a 31-yard pickup but got up and sprinted the rest of the way to the end zone and somehow two separate officials ruled it a touchdown. Replays showed the back was clearly down, and White eventually ended the drive with a 5-yard TD catch off a shuffle pass. White also scored on a 6-yard run, which meant he had recorded five of the last six Patriots touchdowns in the postseason. Interestingly, White has three career rushing touchdowns in 47 regular-season games and two in his last two playoff appearances.