Knee Jerk Reaction to Divisional Playoff: Patriots vs. Titans

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Things to consider while trying to figure out how a team in so much inner turmoil ever managed to make it back to the AFC championship game again:

*This is another one of these moments when I find myself telling to everyone to enjoy this. To appreciate what we are witness to. Like a preacher (the good kind; not the ones who tell old people to send them fat checks or who diddle kids) trying to hammer home the lesson that these blessings should not go uncounted. What is happening simply does not happen. This makes seven straight trips to the conference title. The twelfth overall for Tom Brady in his 16 years as a starter. To put that in perspective, Drew Brees set the all time single season completion percentage record this year with 72 percent. So Brady has a better chance (75 percent) of going to the NFL’s final four every year than the most accurate passer of all time has of completing a pass. So make the most of it. Sustained excellence like this will pass this way but once.

*And how did they pull off a blowout win against a team that was coming off a road victory – coming back from down 21-3 – over a team that blew out the Patriots at the beginning of the year? After a week spent in the eye of a Category 5 controversy storm? With the whole media world forming one massive Sharknado smelling the bloody end of the dynasty and bearing down on them to rip them to pieces? With solid performances in all three phases. Brilliant gameplans on both sides of the ball. A defense that took away what Tennessee wanted to do most and an offense that took what was made available and exploited it. And with huge plays from roster bubble guys that usually get less screen time than Captain Phasma. In other words, the way they’ve been doing it since the millennium. The Patriots Way.

*Before I get to those obscure players who came up huge, I’ll start with the offensive gameplan. Dick LeBeau tried new tricks to the extent that an old dog like him is capable. He disguised coverages in ways that played against his tendencies somewhat. And it worked reasonably well on the first couple of drives and on a few red zone plays. For example with the game at 14-7 and the Pats facing a 2nd & goal, it looked for all the world that Gronk was facing single coverage on the outside, which is usually the red zone version of a perfect 10 on Tinder saying she’s across the street at a hotel and DTF. But at the snap the safety raced over to double. But Brady read it. He also read the middle of the field left wide open (MOFO) and delivered a strike right at the goal post for Brandin Cooks who didn’t make the same read an it fell incomplete. But on the next play Brady found Chris Hogan in the back of the end zone because that was pretty much the limit of the Titans defensive chicanery.

*Beyond that, Tennessee played soft zone, focused on taking away seams, Gos and double moves. It’s what the Pats do most of the time as well, on the theory that no play-caller/QB combo will stay patient all game and keep taking the open underneath stuff. Eventually they’ll want to man up and start throwing home run shots. New England’s offense doesn’t have that ego. Aside from one or two deep balls, they were only too happy to keep hitting out routes and comebackers. Evidenced by the fact that combined, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis had 20 catches on 23 targets. For just under 200 yards.

*Amendola was particularly brutal to Logan Ryan. He was targeted six times with Ryan in coverage and caught all six passes for 79 yards. No one has treated an ex-coworker so badly since Ridley Scott erased Kevin Spacey from All the Money in the World.

*Does Ryan leaving New England to sign on with Tennessee disprove Trump’s theory that no one ever wants to move to a shithole country?

*And arguably the best unit on the field for the Patriots was the offensive line. Against an active front that comes with a lot of disguised blitzes and complex stunts, with a good leverage player in Jerrell Casey, an every-down stud in Wesley Woodyard and specialists like Avery Williamson and Jayon Brown, they kept the pocket clean all night. Brady was really only getting hit after throws where he’d held the ball waiting for someone to get open. And when Brady rolled away from pressure they stayed with their assignments without any of the holds or blocks in the back you so often see. The tackles especially were getting their arms extended to push the outside rush deep and out of the play on virtually every long-developing play. And the running game numbers, 27-for-101 and 2 TDs speak for themselves. For a group that blocked like they were facing pass rushers wielding chainsaws for most of the year, this was one of the O-line’s finest hours.

*Which brings me to the co-winners of this week’s Antwan Harris “Who the Hell is That Guy” Award, given to the otherwise obscure Pats player who comes up huge in a playoff game. The first goes to Brandon Bolden, a professional special teamer who had one carry all of last season and this year has been the Human Victory Cigar, barely even registering carries when only one other running back dressed. But he comes in Saturday night to have four carries with the game still undecided. Rips off a 20 yard run. And had the touchdown that pretty much took the remaining light out of the Titans’ eyes. Granted, the O-line threw so many combo blocks on that one and James Develin wiped out the Mike so badly that Stephen Hawking could have run it in. But still. No one in the world had Brandon Bolden on their Fantasy team and the fact he was getting the ball on the goal line in non-garbage time is a testament to Josh McDaniels and his brass balls.

*On the other side of the line it was Geneo Grissom. This was a guy who had 26 snaps all season. Has become the designated roster move guy in the mold of Gene Mruczkowski or the Ventrone brothers who’s been cut more times than a party-size pan pizza. And he had 10 snaps. Power-rushed Quinton Spain for the game’s final sack. Got a hilarious and semi-intentional flat tire from Brynden Trawick. And best of all, drew a neutral zone infraction on the punt by moving when the defender jumped across the line as he’d been told to. All in all, not a bad day for a guy who’d been blown past on the depth chart by Trey Flowers.

*Speaking of whom, Flowers is clearly not healthy and gutted this one out. When they ran to his side he simply could not set an edge or pursue a runner like we’re used to. He ran like a pickup in first gear with the 4-wheel drive engaged. He still played most of the downs, but they were better when they had him inside of either James Harrison or Kyle Van Noy because he can’t play in space at the moment.

*And while I’ll admit it looked ugly on that 95-yard touchdown drive, the defense did what it set out to do, which was take Derrick Henry out of the game entirely. That’s something I was legit worried about with Alan Branch out. But the tackles, led always by Malcom Brown and helped by Adam Butler and Ricky Jean-Francois, simply dominated the gaps and gave Henry nowhere to go.

*And while my brain still struggles to form these words, Van Noy is a huge key to everything they do up front. On that Titan’s 4th down attempt (tried more out of desperation than inspiration) Van Noy pushed a double team two full yards into the backfield to blow the outside run out as like seven other Patriots swarmed to the ball. Raise your hand if a year ago you had Van Noy on your list of “Essential New England Patriots for the 2018 Playoff Run.” Nobody? OK. I’m moving on. …

*Tony Romo told us the Titans were going to be in this game because both their offensive and defensive lines will dominate. Which proves Tony Romo the analyst is, like Tony Romo the quarterback, much better in the regular season than the playoffs.

*Stephon Gilmore’s night: 4 targets, 0 completions, 1 pass defensed. Judging by the crowd at the bar(s) I was watching the games from Saturday, the public has never gotten over that bad month he had early on. But this guy is very good at cornerbacking. It’s time we go totally chick movie romcom on Gilmore, see past that bad first impression, realize that what we thought were his flaws actually complete us and fall in love.

*It’s one small moment and had no bearing on the game, but it speaks to the difference between how the Pats are coached versus everyone else. On the last play of the first half, Amendola caught a pass between the numbers and went to the ground. And the Titans immediately downed him, with one second left. Had everyone just stood there, the clock would’ve run out. No Patriots time out. No Stephen Gostkowski kick. Just zeros across the board. I’m assuming that Belichick has been coaching that point since he was fetching coffee for Ted Marchibroda. But if he hasn’t, he will be now.

*But Belichick’s best work was furiously throwing the challenge flag because the refs wouldn’t accept his verbal request. One, because the game was hopelessly out of reach. And two, because he’s right. It’s one thing if you need to chuck it onto the field to get the officials’ attention to stop a play. But when he’s standing right next to you but can’t listen to you unless you produce the flag? When did that little red rag become the conch shell from Lord of the Flies?

*There was also this. I take it as the universe trying to tell us something:

3rd & GOAT

*This Week’s Applicable Movie Quote: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. (etc, etc)“ – Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction

*I’ve been at this too long to think that a blowout win in the playoffs will call off the vicious Black Mirror robot dogs even for a hot second. Prepare to spend the week hearing that the Titans are the Cleveland Browns, if they play that way again they won’t beat anybody, Belichick is still going to the Giants, Brady looked unhappy and this changes nothing. Of course virtually the exact same people saying this stuff said Danny Amendola could never replace Wes Welker. So you believe whom you want to believe, me or them.

*But just to be on the safe side, here. Now all our problems will be solved. [graphic via r/patriots]:

Brady POTW

@jerrythornton1