NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As kickoff approached, this felt a lot like a home game for New England. Not only does Nissan Stadium, along the banks of the Cumberland River, look aesthetically like Gillette, it looked and sounded like half the place was filled with Patriots fans. And with so many former Patriots on the Titans, Nashville felt like a familiar place.
Problem was, the Patriots themselves didn't quite show up on the field.
"You've got to show up and play wherever you are, and we didn't do that today. It's frustrating," center and co-captain David Andrews admitted later.
It didn't take the actual home team long to remind the Patriots that this is Titans territory. Thanks to a 58-yard opening kickoff return, Tennessee started the game on New England's side of midfield and needed just seven plays from scrimmage to find the end zone and take a 7-0 lead.
Nissan got just as loud, though, when Tom Brady found WR Josh Gordon for a 44-yard gain on 3rd-and-13 early in their first possession. At the end of it, kicker Stephen Gostkowski, having a strong 2018 season, trimmed the Tennessee lead by drilling a 52-yard field goal.
Tennessee scored again on its second drive, aided in part by a pass interference penalty on CB Stephon Gilmore. He committed a second one on QB Marcus Mariota's touchdown pass to WR Corey Davis, but, of course, the Titans didn't need to accept it because Davis made the catch in the end zone anyway.
Defensively, Gilmore struggled against Davis, the Titans' top pass-catching target. In addition to his penalties and letting up a touchdown, Gilmore surrendered a 20-yard catch to Davis on 3rd-and-14 and looked like he was grabbing desperately more than defending smoothly, as he's done for most of this season.
"I could have won that matchup a little more," Gilmore confessed, "but he made some plays today. My hat's off to him. He just had a better day today."
Throughout most of the first quarter in Music City, New England just couldn't find a rhythm.
Then, the Patriots started running the ball. Back after missing the previous two-and-a-half games, rookie Sony Michel provided a spark toward the end of the quarter. That helped open up passing lanes for Brady and his receivers.
Fullback James Develin, normally called on to block, was given a rare opportunity to carry the football, and he took advantage of the opportunity by punching it in from inside the 1-yard line. It was his first touchdown since 2013 and first carry since 2014.
At the point, New England appeared to be waking up. After the Patriots defense finally forced a Tennessee punt, the Patriots continued to move the ball well, but Gostkowski pulled another 52-yard attempt wide left to keep the score 17-10, Titans.
"Just couldn't get in rhythm. Got to execute better. That's it. What you see was what happened," Michel told reporters. "They had a great team. They were prepared and out-executed us… We had some good plays, some not-so-good plays. It was a mixture of both and it was hard to get in rhythm."
Trailing 24-10 at halftime, New England never looked like itself.
"We were in third-and-long a lot, I think. Didn't get anything established. We just got outplayed," lamented wide receiver Julian Edelman.
One play perhaps epitomized how the Patriots performed in Nashville.
In the fourth quarter, on 3rd-and-7 from the Titans' 43-yard line, McDaniels called the same trick play – a reverse pass to Brady – that failed in Super Bowl LII this past February. This time, Brady made the catch, but as he spun around, with nothing but green grass ahead of him, Brady stumbled and fell short of the marker. New England went for it and failed on the ensuing fourth down.
And just like in Super Bowl LII, when the Eagles ran the same play and scored a touchdown, Tennessee – led by head coach and former Patriots LB Mike Vrabel – called an identical play for Mariota on the next Titans possession. On 1st-and-10, Mariota gained 21 yards. The Titans finished that drive with a touchdown run by Derrick Henry to complete the lopsided victory.
The Patriots head back home now, with a bye week next on the schedule. Coming off their most impressive overall effort a week earlier against Green Bay, New England played equally poorly versus the Titans.
These two weeks ahead should give this team plenty of time to figure out which performance is more representative of who they really are.
"Only thing we can do is go back to work this week. You know, there's still six games left," added Andrews. "Got to take advantage of this week off, improve on a lot of things, and come roaring out of the gate these last six games."