You know a game has gone well for New England when the Gillette Stadium crowd starts to sound like they’re cheering for Georgetown.
Yes, when backup quarterback Brian Hoyer takes the final snaps, that means victory formation. The Patriots overcame a sluggish start and unleashed a relentless attack on both sides of the ball, scoring 35 straight points en route to a 35-14 win over the Titans. Though early on this game looked about as easy to play as a Noomi Rapace role (I mean … Good God), the home squad settled down in the second quarter to score 21 points and set fans into early celebration mode.
This makes it seven straight trips to the AFC Championship, a remarkable achievement. In their six previous consecutive appearances, New England faced Baltimore (twice), Denver (twice), Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis. Only the Steelers made the playoffs this year. Meanwhile, the Jaguars made it to the post-season for the first time since 2007. Just another example of the remarkable consistency shown by these Foxboroites.
I’ll get it out of the way here: much of the culture of consistency comes from Coach Bill Belichick, who has made it clear that looking past Tennessee to a potential Pittsburgh match-up would have been, at the very least, frowned upon. We’re talking about a coach who, back in 2011, benched his most productive receiver for making foot puns. (Just for the record, I enjoyed those immensely).
Maybe a Patriots player considered tweeting before the Titans game about matching up with the Steelers again; if so, he had plenty of reason to restrain himself. We can never know how much “billboard material” works with players; we will never grasp how much Pittsburgh’s apparent lack of focus on Jacksonville hurt them in that game. We’ll never know because we don’t have to: New England is, once again, vying for the AFC title. (For a peek at some of the Steelers’ Pats-centered tweets, check out Jerry Thornton’s piece on Barstool Sports.)
Though many Patriots followers figured the Jaguars would prove an easier opponent than the Steelers, Sunday’s track meet may have given them pause. As Michael Hurley of CBS Sports Boston pointed out, the Jags are no joke, and failing to take them seriously could prove fatal to playoff hopes. But then, New England doesn’t tend to do that type of thing.
Hey, remember when the Jaguars played the Patriots in the preseason? I barely did, enough to dig up this link to my game column, which has become about as useful as a 2017 calendar. (Jimmy G. looks great! Hope they can hang on to this Austin Carr fella!)
A true Tom Brady vs. Blake Bortles contest would make predictions easier. Instead, it’s Brady facing one of the best pass defenses in the league. See you Sunday at 3:05 p.m.
TB Continued: No need to bore you with all of the records Brady now sets every time he steps onto the football field – including oldest QB to start a playoff game – so we’ll focus on his stats. The old man (oof, that hurts for me to say) completed 35 of 53 passes (66 percent) for 337 yards and three touchdowns, just the type of performance that should quell the febrile minds of those aching for the end of Brady’s career. It seems that the media has more members searching for a drop off than timid swimmers at a surf beach.
The quarterback’s performance went beyond the numbers, though, as he called a strong game that seemed to anticipate Tennessee’s moves. He often took what they gave him and at times bought time to seek more. The 31-yard screen pass to Dion Lewis to begin the second quarter (the one where he seemed to score but didn’t), featured more fakes than a talent agent’s pool party. Later in the same drive, Brady sent running back James White in motion to the right, read the one-on-one coverage from the linebacker, and brought White scampering back to the left for a touch pass TD that tied the game at 13:18 of the second quarter.
Brady has said that he’s seen everything; it’s tough to think of a defense he hasn’t. Along with his experience comes guile. At the end of the third quarter, he shuffled in the pocket to await receiver Danny Amendola breaking free for a 25-yard gain (to the offensive line’s credit, Brady had enough time on that play to apply to college – using, like, the old-school, hard-copy submission). With 13:45 left in the game, the QB trotted to his right on third and 10 and offered a 12-yard fadeaway cloud-contactor to Amendola. By the beginning of the second quarter, Brady seemed to get a handle on the Titans defense and he refused to let go.
You can see Brady’s highlights from the divisional matchup here.
Tight Coverage: Tight end Rob Gronkowski ended up with six catches for 81 yards and an impressive touchdown where he reached around safety Kevin Byard (while demonstrating the skill and experience of a stay-at-home mom grabbing a misplaced Shopkin under her car seat) for the home team’s final score. On New England’s third scoring drive in the second quarter, Gronkowski converted a third-and-four on a seven-yard boxout of Byard. At the 8:22 mark of the third, on the first play of their fourth scoring possession, Gronk steamed up the middle, shrugged off linebacker Wesley Woodyard’s grabby hands, broke left to get open, then straight-armed Woodyard for an extra seven yards on a 27-yard gain.
Byard, a first-team All-Pro who had eight interceptions this season, summed it up best: “You try to be physical with him, but you turn around and the ball is already in his chest because Brady is throwing missiles.” Gronk’s highlight reel comes in this convenient link.
Gronkowski adds to his value with consistently strong blocking. On Brandon Bolden’s scoring rush at 4:04 of the third, you can see Gronk line up on the left side and handle Brian Orakpo. The tight end fires off and pushes the linebacker his heels touch the goal line. Gronk’s impressive in most respects.
Assistant D. A.: Tough to think of a more clutch-yet-underrated player than Amendola, who has consistently helped this offense during franchise-changing moments. Saturday, he hauled in 11 passes for 112 yards (his first career 100-plus-yard postseason game) and, most importantly, six first downs. On the 25-yard gain mentioned above, the receiver had more space around him than the USS Callister. Another highlight indicative of his impact came on third and three with seven minutes left in the third, where Amendola went in motion from right to left, then cut in behind Gronkowski for a seven-yard grab and a first down.
His most remarkable play of the night happened on Brady’s rainbow shot early in the fourth, because as eye-popping as the quarterback’s pass looked, there’s no conversion without Amendola going up to get it. That’s what seems to set him apart from Brandin Cooks, Phillip Dorsett, and even Chris Hogan: his ability – and obvious willingness – to become Gronk-like and chase after that football like a Jack Russell after a rawhide bone. In a 50-50 situation coming down with the pass, I give the nod to Amendola. It’s a quality he shares with Julian Edelman, as this past Super Bowl showed. NBC Sports Boston’s Phil Perry had an in-depth look at Danny “Playoff” Amendola in this column. New England’s passing offense will get its toughest test next week. Amendola should once again figure prominently in finding the answers.
Sacks Section: The Patriots took down Matt Mariota eight times, a team playoff record. Six different defenders got in on the act, with Deatrich Wise and Geneo Grissom reaching the plural with two apiece, and the not-related Flowerses (Marquis and Trey), Adam Butler, and Ricky Jean-Francois adding to Mariota’s maladies.
The defensive front executed more twists than a donut shop, something Jean-Francois knows about. The big tackle showed a strong example of that with Trey Flowers. With 10:36 left in the third quarter, Flowers lined up at end and hesitated as Jean-Francois plowed upfield. Possibly thinking he’d switch off with left tackle Lewan Taylor, guard Quinton Spain released Jean-Francois, only to allow the LSU alum to engulf the QB like high tide surf over a dock piling. On the succeeding play, Marquis Flowers lined up as a stand-up right end. At the snap, he flipped his hips as if to drop back into coverage, only to reset and barrel toward Mariota, snatching him at the two-yard line.
Mike Reiss of ESPN.com gives a closer look at the Pats’ pass-rush plans in his column. New England’s defensive highlight reel can be seen here.
Skip To D. Lew: It took a while for New England’s offense to get going, with Dion Lewis providing the main spark. When the offensive pace began to pick up in the second quarter, Lewis helped keep up the tempo, first with the aforementioned 31-yard screen followed by a 14-yard reception in the middle of the field that got the ball down to the five to set up White. Low-runner Lewis tallied 62 yards rushing on 15 carries (a solid 4.1 avg.) and nine receptions for 79 yards. I’d call 141 yards from scrimmage a pretty good night.
The power pack displayed an underrated run at the end of the first quarter, featuring a sharp cut to his left combined with what I call his “treading air” move (a petit jeté, really) followed by a viper-quick dart toward the sideline for four extra yards and a first down. That can be seen at the 0:31 mark of this highlight reel. He’s a dynamic player who has taken on the role of an every-down back. Fun to watch.
With Tennessee’s inability to cover running backs in the passing game, the Patriots also utilized…
White Time, White Place: Looks like James White has made himself into a playoffs mainstay, with two touchdowns, one each via air and land. His numbers failed to astound (four rushes for 11 yards and a TD, four receptions for 29 and a TD), but his presence on their scoring drives – especially when they began picking up the pace in the second quarter – does not qualify as a coincidence. White’s rushing touchdown involved him plowing through two defenders and resembled a certain historical score that many Patriots fans remember with fondness.
Lewis is the starter and will get most of the reps, but White remains the better pass-blocker who has earned Brady’s confidence. Not a bad duo to have.
I’ll Be Here A Kyle: When New England signed Kyle Van Noy last year, it seemed like a solid-yet-unspectacular pickup. Special teams help and linebacker depth, at best. He has turned himself into one of the defense’s most dependable players, someone whose two-tackle stat line fails to register the importance of his presence. Van Noy gets the defense aligned properly and often makes work easier for others.
Best example: on Tennessee’s ill-fated fourth-down rush near the end of the first half, Van Noy split the double-team block of tight end Johnnu Smith and receiver Eric Decker, carrying them with him five yards into the backfield, forcing running back Derrick Henry to shuffle outside into the waiting arms of what seemed like all other available New England tacklers. Due to the inability of any one player to replace defensive stalwart Dont’a Hightower, Van Noy’s contributions get overlooked; however, the Patriots have a less-organized, less-athletic defense without him.
Malcom In The Middle? That’s a good thing. Defensive linemen Malcom Brown (two tackles), Lawrence Guy (two tackles), and Jean-Francois (one sack) helped hold Henry to 28 yards rushing on 12 carries, a measly 2.3-yard average. That’s shorter than some people’s couches. Quite impressive considering Henry’s size (a washer-dryer-combo-like 6-3, 247) and the fact that just the previous week he pillaged Kansas City for 156 yards on 23 carries (6.8 avg.). Strong day for the front seven, which will prove crucial vs. the Jaguars: Leonard Fournette gouged the Steelers for 109 yards on 25 carries (4.4-yard avg.).
Malcolm On The Edges? Not as good. While the Patriots secondary had a solid day overall (Mariota completed 22 of 37 passes, 59 percent, for 254 yards and two scores), Malcolm Butler seemed to be in chase mode at certain parts of the evening. Corey Davis (five catches, 63 yards) scored both of Tennessee’s touchdowns with Butler in coverage. Maybe Butler should get a break considering Davis’ one-handed grab showed spectacular ability, while his fourth-quarter score happened after the game’s outcome had been decided. Still, it didn’t seem that the home team’s defense had stopped trying. Meanwhile, Stephon Gilmore had a commendable night (zero catches allowed on four targets, one pass broken up). Eric Rowe also showed up (his one-on-one tackle of Taywan Taylor for a short gain on third and seven in the second quarter got the visitors off the field).
Considering how tough a time Mariota had finding open receivers (see Sacks, Patriots, above), a sound day from the defensive backfield. More of that is needed next week, as Jacksonville’s pass-catchers are more explosive, which is a bit like saying your homemade salsa is spicier than vanilla pudding. I mean… that’s good, I guess?
Continually Being Strong: A solid broadcast by CBS last week. Sure, maybe they alluded to the alleged inner turmoil within Gillette too often, and maybe Jim Nantz and Tony Romo seemed a little too excited when Tennessee took a 7-0 lead, but overall they did commendable work.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. During the pre-game chat, Romo compared the 2017 Patriots to the 1996 Chicago Bulls, where “people will tune in just to see if they’ll lose.” Not sure if this is accurate, as I watched the Bulls to see great basketball played by Hall-of-Fame players. (I watched the 1993 Dallas Cowboys just to see if they’d lose.)
• At 4:18 of the second quarter, Nantz credited Adoree Jackson with a pass break-up, though it looked like the throw went off-target. A replay would have helped clear that up.
• Some funny-odd comments by Nantz regarding Bolden, a career special-teamer who rushed for a touchdown this past week for the first time since 2015. When he first ran the ball, Nantz said, “Brandon Bolden – who plays special teams – he’s not even up every week.” I’m not sure what that means. That he doesn’t run the football every week, I suppose? Later, after Bolden scored his TD and lined up on the kickoff team, Nantz went a little over-the-top with “Now on the kickoff team!” as if it were some kind of modern miracle. Nantz did this earlier in the season with Rex Burkhead, too.
As Belichick would say, you only have 53 on the roster, and only 46 of them play on Sundays. I mean, Bolden’s versatility is cool and everything, but it’s not like any of these guys is Jim Thorpe.
• I shall continue to oppose broadcasting an opponent’s reaction after a touchdown. For whatever reason, CBS became obsessed with filming Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau after successful Patriots plays. We really didn’t need to see him after every score. I mean, the man is 80 years old. He has childhood memories of World War II. I’d rather watch a team celebrating than a Hall of Fame senior citizen fuming. Did Gillette not have enough happy fans for the cameras?
• Last negative, and it goes to Nate Burleson at the CBS desk. I enjoy Burleson on the Good Morning Football show on the NFL Network (with reliable pro Kay Adams), but he doesn’t seem comfortable yet at CBS. In his Saturday post-game comments, he said of the New England offense, “It was literally ‘Masterpiece Theater.”
Okay, a couple of things: one, not literally. Ever. Let’s all stop using literally for a couple of years so we can bring it back for what it actually means. Over the past 20 years, “literally” has gotten stuck as a fad qualifier, where “really” or nothing would work just as well. Worse, it is used to mean the exact opposite, which is figuratively. Example: “When he runs, he’s literally on a rocket ship.” Nope. Exactly wrong. I blame Gus Williams, who said during the Bulls’ final championship run, “Michael Jordan has literally raised the roof on this building!” Nunh-unh. Not unless he hired a ton of contractors.
Two, as the son of a regular watcher of “Upstairs, Downstairs” (or what I call 1970s “Downton Abbey”), I can tell you that “Masterpiece Theater” has nothing to do with football. I think Burleson was going for some version of “Chess Master” or “Master Class” or maybe even “Chess Piece” and whiffed worse than Marcus Williams. (I’m kidding: no one has ever whiffed worse than Marcus Williams.)
Anyway, considering the planning that goes into those straining-to-seem-off-the-cuff segments, a substandard look from the new guy.
Okay, let’s check out the good stuff. You’ll be over the moon – literally! (Oh god damnit.)
• Really enjoyed CBS’ shots of the Museum of Fine Arts after a commercial break. We just brought our daughter there a year ago, which was our first time in a long time. Worth it if you can go.
• Nantz and the production crew nailed a few stats on the spot, including: when Brady tied Brett Favre for second-most career TD passes at 552; after White’s second touchdown, the running back had scored five of the Patriots’ previous six post-season TDs; that Tennessee gained 95 yards on their touchdown drive and 79 yards total on six other possessions; that, after Brady’s amazing fadeaway completion, Amendola had 11 receptions including six first downs; and, at 10:22 of the fourth, the Titans had 39 offensive plays vs. the Patriots’ 30 first downs.
• Romo had an impressive forecast at the 3:50 mark of the second quarter, calling New England’s run to the left based on Tennessee’s defensive formation. He then did solid work explaining how the Patriots’ hurry-up offense was affecting their opponent.
• Wonderful overhead angle on Bolden’s touchdown run in the third quarter, providing a real Xs and Os look at the effectiveness of New England’s blocking scheme.
• Last, nice touch by Nantz with his 9-8-7 comment: nine straight division titles, eight straight first-round byes, and seven straight AFC Championship appearances. Decent run, I’d say.
Sports Journalism Is FANtastic: Hey, here’s a clip from a respected television show from last week entitled, “Why the New England Patriots could be in trouble when the Tennessee Titans roll into town.”
This is like a weather report saying, “Why living in New England doesn’t mean your house won’t be ruined by a tornado.” Can it happen? Sure. But why must we focus on the things that are far less likely to happen? Why not report what we think will actually occur and why? A shame that sticking out has become the most important aspect of sports journalism now.
Tune in next week for the first of my 26-part weekly feature, “Why The Patriots Will Miss The Playoffs In 2018.”
And now, these commercial messages…
Somewhere Between Kevin And Hell: I think CBS’ sitcom “Kevin Can Wait” is becoming the new “According To Jim,” a show that will stay on the air indefinitely even though no one seems to know anyone who watches it. “Kevin Can Wait” will get a People’s Choice Award in 2023 and I’ll say, “Wait, that’s still on the air?”
Chubby white guys, man. People love ’em.
Somewhere Between Heaven And Bell: An ad I would typically ignore that now fascinates me, this Taco Bell offering features Taylor, a petite, 20-something woman, eating all the food Brad paid for. This includes a beefy five-layer burrito, a cinnamon twist, a crunchy taco, a cheesy gordita crunch, and a medium drink that looks like Mountain Dew. And, apparently, she consumes all of this in the time it takes Brad to get up, go into the kitchen, and grab a few napkins.
If I ate a fraction of that food, my insides would resemble the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan. Good luck there, Taylor.
Can’t Buy Me Subs: Everybody tells me so. The unintentionally hilarious ad of the night came in the form of a new Subway commercial. The announcer read, “They say money can’t buy happiness, yet everyday, $4.99 buys you a foot-long Black Forest Ham…” I laughed out loud at this.
Hey, I’ve got nothing against Subway, but entering one of their shops doesn’t exactly fill me with bliss. More likely, I get a sense of regret that I didn’t have time for other lunch options. I just imagine an adult person showing his or her foot-long Chicken Tandoori sub to a co-worker and exclaiming, “See? Money can buy happiness!” with the co-worker nodding and moving to another table.
Not-So-Golden-Slumbers: Enjoyed the McDonald’s commercial with the overwhelmed dad trying to appease a group of his daughter’s friends on a sleep over. Harrowing, yet humorous. Kind of like my high school yearbook photos.
Trivastop: I’m not exactly sure what Trivago is, mainly because I was mesmerized by the spokesman’s shabby look. Untucked shirt. Unshaven. (Get it together, man – you’re on television!) Apparently he’s the “Trivago Guy,” and the whole just-rolled-out-of-bed look has been a thing for years. It’s hard to imagine a female looking like that – and she doesn’t. Trivago’s spokeswoman is Gabrielle Miller, who untucks her shirt for the same effect as a rom-com protagonist putting up her hair and wearing glasses.
Now, of course, I’m obsessed with critiquing these ads. Damn you, Trivago.
Opposing Team Mascot Etymology: The Tupi-Guarini people of South America named the big cats yaguára, which Portuguese explorers wrote down as jaguar.
Opposing Team Site Name Etymology: Jacksonville was named after President Andrew Jackson, who had served as the first military governor of the Florida territory. Neither he nor anyone else ever got the Seminoles to surrender.
Jacksonville Fun Fact: The underwater sequences in the 1954 film Creature From The Black Lagoon were shot in Jacksonville, which had served as a silent film studio center in the early 20th Century.
Will this game be a scary show, a fun romp, or somewhere in-between? We shall see.
Chris Warner thought the Creature from the Black Lagoon was a little misunderstood. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @cwarn89.