…Slow start for the Patriots offensively in this one. They were hoping to avoid that by taking the ball first after winning the coin toss, but after gaining one 1st down, QB Tom Brady seemed rushed as he threw a 3rd down pass and it fell short and incomplete to the outside. Looked like he felt pressured by Titans OLB Brian Orakpo, who had leverage against RT LaAdrian Waddle and was closing in on Brady.
…New England’s defense was stout against the run versus a good rushing team in Tennessee. This had been a liability for the Patriots much of this season, but they’re beginning to improve there at just the right time.
…The Patriots are also getting to the quarterback more frequently. Against the Titans, they brought down QB Marcus Mariota eight times, the first coming courtesy rookie DE Deatrich Wise on 3rd-and-7 from the Tennessee 25.
New England disguised it front, which initially appeared to be blitzing five men at the snap. Two of them held up, however, leaving just three rushers: DE Trey Flowers, rookie DL Adam Butler, and Wise. All three managed to collapse Mariota’s pocket, but Butler came the closest at first to Mariota. Butler came straight up the middle, having adeptly beaten a double-team by center Ben Jones and right guard Josh Kline. Butler slipped between them, which caused the QB to step up in the pocket. As he did, both Flowers and Wise were flanking him as they engaged with the right and left tackles, respectively. Mariota darted toward his left, where was being pushed backward by LT Taylor Lewan, yet with just his free left arm, Wise – while falling to the turf – managed to bring down Mariota. Fantastic individual play by Wise, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the team effort by his d-line mates.
…Even though he didn’t score against Tennessee, WR Danny Amendola proved to be a valuable target for Brady and a valuable, reliable contributor as the team’s punt returner. He’s quietly been a steady presence at both positions all year for New England after fellow WR/PR Julian Edelman was lost back in August with a right knee injury.
Against the Titans, Amendola returned three of seven punts, averaging nine yards per return, but also made smart decisions and kept his composure on four fair catches in between hauling in 11 of the 13 passes Brady threw to him. Amendola finished with 112 yards receiving, many of them in crucial situations.
…Brady had no pressure at all on a 3rd-and-7 on New England’s next possession, and the Titans gave him a gift when they forgot to cover TE Rob Gronkowski, who was lined up wide left. However, Brady threw a terrible ball out in front of Gronk and low to the ground. Should have been an easy connection for a 1st down along the Titans sideline.
…Hard to fault CB Malcolm Butler on Tennessee’s only significant touchdown of the game (I’m not counting the meaningless one in the late 4th quarter). Butler didn’t bite on Corey Davis’ initial stop-and-go route, but stayed with the rookie WR stride-for-stride into the end zone. In fact, Butler might have even been holding onto Davis’ right arm, but the rookie made a tremendous one-handed catch with his open left hand as the two men fell to the turf. Sometimes, no amount of proper technique can save you from an athletic play, and that was the case on this Tennessee touchdown.
…No question that RB Dion Lewis was down by contact midway through his 50-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception that was eventually overturned, but great job by Lewis of recognizing that he might be able to keep the play alive and forcing the issue by allowing the referees to make a decision on the field. Good instincts shown there.
…A play that is quickly becoming bread-and-butter for New England is the jet sweep with a twist. Instead of turning from under center to hand off to a motioning player, Brady, in the shotgun, takes the snap and drops the ball forward into the hands of that motioning player. It worked to perfection when RB James White scored with it, thanks also to some great blocks by his teammates.
The Titans were in man coverage, which helped the Patriots block this play, and the linebacker responsible for White wasn’t fast enough to cut through the clutter of his defense to get to the other side. White outraced two other Titans defenders to the pylon and dove in for the touchdown on 2nd-and-goal from the 5. Excellent play design and execution and perfectly timed call by OC Josh McDaniels.
…New England was pleased to see WR Chris Hogan return from a right shoulder injury that essentially sidelined him for all but one game of the entire second half of the season. He showed he was fully recovered from that injury by using that same right shoulder to throw a devastating, decleating block on LB Wesley Woodyard to help Lewis gain a few extra yards on a reception.
…Patriots defenders tackled very well throughout the game. CBs Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe both made nice stops on 3rd-down receptions to keep their opponents short of the 1st-down sticks and force the Titans to punt.
…New England may have gotten a break when referee Ron Torbert’s crew overturned their own penalty decision against Geneo Grissom while the Patriots were in punt formation deep in their own end. Grissom appeared to rock backward slightly just as a Titans player jumped into the neutral zone. Grissom was initially called for a false start, but Torbert’s officials decided after a discussion that Tennessee was to blame. Could have gone either way, and it’s unusual to see a crew not only reverse a penalty decision, but to flag the other team as well.
…On 3rd-and-goal from the Titans’ 4, Hogan found his way into the end zone for his first touchdown in quite some time. Tennessee again went with man coverage, and Hogan did a good job of shedding CB Tye Smith at the line of scrimmage so he could cleanly run his route, a shallow corner to the empty back of the end zone. Smith was caught trailing by a step or two and Brady delivered a precise throw for the easy scoring connection.
…New England stuffed Tennessee on a 4th-and-1 attempt at the end of the first half. It was made possible by Flowers and safety Patrick Chung filling the hole into which RB Derrick Henry was trying to run, which forced him to bounce outside and backtrack. This delay allowed several other Patriots defenders, led by Malcolm Butler, to swarm Henry for a 5-yard loss.
3rd & 4th Quarters
…Adam Butler, the rookie DL, came up with the second big sack of Mariota early in the second half on 3rd-and-7 in Tennessee territory. Like last time, Butler slipped between Jones, the center, and Kline, the right guard to make his way into the backfield, where he wound up overshooting Mariota at first. But the QB felt the pressure and tried to escape to his right, where Flowers and LB Kyle Van Noy were waiting. Mariota evaded Van Noy, but Butler clamped down on him from behind. Once again, excellent work by the outnumbered Patriots front to apply pressure on the young Mariota.
…There seemed to be some indecision between Lewan, the left tackle, and left guard Quinton Spain as to who should be responsible for Patriots DL Ricky Jean Francois on the next Titans possession. Jean Francois knifed between the two of them, with Flowers following close behind. It seemed neither blocker was sure who was taking Jean Francois, so, he easily got past both of them and was unobstructed on his way to take down Mariota for a big loss on 1st down.
…New England’s 2017 season defense doesn’t blitz much, and when they do, it’s often on 3rd down, but DC Matt Patricia dialed up a rare 2nd-down blitz on the very next play after Mariota was sacked. LB Marquis Flowers disguised it well by delayed his blitz at the snap. He waited until a Titans receiver in the slot to his right went by him, leaving no Titans in the area to impede his path to Mariota. It wasn’t until too late that Mariota noticed him coming and had no choice but to fold and accept the sack.
…Adam Butler should get an assist on Trey Flowers’ next sack because, once again, it was Butler’s penetration that allowed a teammate to swoop in and wrap up Mariota in the backfield.
…Rob Gronkowski’s 4-yard touchdown catch might have seemed pedestrian. He was 1-on-1 with a safety and Brady just lobbed it up for him to out-jump the defender. What’s impressive about it is that it marks Gronkowski’s 10th postseason touchdown of his career – the most ever by a Patriot, most ever by a tight end in NFL history, and tied for third-most (with five other players) by any player in league history.
..An underappreciated aspect of this game was the effective job punting by Ryan Allen, who pinned the Titans deep in their end much of the night. New England enjoyed solid field position as a result when the defense forced Tennessee to punt from there. Kudos to Allen for helping in this regard.