FOXBORO -- Well, that was a thoroughly unsatisfying evening for America.
Aging, new-age health nut Tom Brady didn’t break his hip. He didn’t curl up like an armadillo at the first sign of danger or drop into the Lotus position on the sidelines and seek his bliss on the sidelines.
PATRIOTS 35, TITANS 14
He threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns. Among his 53 attempts were two feathered fallaways (one complete, the other should have been) a 65-yard heave and two or three that were chased by a vapor trail.
The glimmer of hope the country was offered in the form of a 7-0 Titans lead at the end of the first quarter was chased by a merciless 35-0 run by New England. When the Titans -- trailing by 28 -- were driving with less than four minutes left, Bill Belichick tried to curb the threat by challenging a reception.
A New England false start penalty morphed into a Tennessee infraction instead and the Patriots suddenly had a drive-continuing first down that -- after two more Titans penalties -- they capped with a touchdown.
CBS’ cameras showed no cloaks and no daggers. Just the same, old maddening shots of muskets firing after touchdowns and a whole lot of fun being had by the most reviled fanbase in American sports.
The reported tension and dysfunction the country hoped would manifest itself in a humiliating face-plant against the absolutely not-ready-for-prime-time Titans was instead a loud announcement that, whatever issues the Patriots principals may be having after 18 years working together, it isn’t harming the on-field product.
Vital signs? Strong.
“This time of year, there’s no such thing to me as distractions,” said Patriots safety and captain Devin McCourty. “Unless you have some issue going on with your family or something like that, there is nothing else that can distract you.
“I don’t care what comes out, what’s said, our goal from the beginning of the season was to be able to play in the playoffs and try to go out there and win games in the playoffs,” he said. “There’s nothing right now that can deter us from that. We’re going to stay focused on that, try to play our best game each week that we earn the right to go back out there and I think we know that. We know once you get in the playoffs, it’s not given to you. You’ve got to go earn it. We did that tonight. Now it’s all about getting ready to go for next week.”
Brady built a wall between himself between himself and anonymous allegations of him coercing teammates to go to TB12 Performance, celebrating the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, agitating for a contract extension and throwing teammates into trouble because he was skittish and fragile. But enough of that slipped through over the past week for him to be more than aware what the swirl has been.
And he was happy to offer his rebuttal on the field.
“[The field] always feels [like a sanctuary] and I think being on the field is a great place to . . . go prove it,” he said. “You can talk all day about what you’re going to do or what you can do. Ultimately, you’ve got to go out there and do it. I think just having the opportunity to go play . . . I’ve had so many great teammates over the years and this team has done such a great job this year focusing on what we need to. When you get out there, that’s the best part of the week. To be in the playoffs and to play well and to advance is just really great for this team. Like I said, we've just got to do it again next week.”
The Patriots are in the AFC Championship for the 12th time since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived in New England. A chance to go to their eighth Super Bowl in 18 seasons looms. The chance to win three in four seasons for a second time is that much closer this morning.
That, in the end, is what they are all there for.
“I thought about it today,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “I was sitting at home, getting jittery and nervous. But when I get here it was like, ‘Boom, this is what we do, this is part of the program, this is what we know.’
“And I do think that the outside world wants to make it about something it’s not,” he acknowledged. “And it’s constantly our job to make it about football. That’s what it is. It’s not about all these other things that get thrown in there. And we don’t let them become distractions. The purity of the game is what we’re here for. I think even in our own heads sometimes it can get mixed up, too. But when you have games like this, the playoffs, and you’re around your teammates playing football then it’s pure and it’s fun and it’s genuine.”
A player like Ricky Jean-Francois -- a seventh-round pick in 2009 who played in San Francisco, Washington, Indianapolis and Green Bay before becoming a Patriot -- is 31. What gets written and said about the level of tension and uncertainty goes in one ear and out the other. He’s closer to the end than the beginning. He doesn’t have time for that stuff.
“What’s fun is the journey and the process and being able to go and perform on a stage this big,” he said. “I tell these young guys, ‘I know some cats who’ve been in the league a long time and have not seen the postseason. So when you’re out there and making a sack, believe me, feel blessed and be happy. You could be home watching on TV, but you’re here putting on a performance. We’re out here to play together and when things go right, look at each other and celebrate. Smile.’
“I’m an older guy so when I see a young guy celebrate, I embrace that, I put that in my memory bank,” Jean-Francois added. “When I have to hang up my cleats, that’s what I want to look back on.”
Saturday night was one of those satisfying nights players like Jean-Francois will revisit. And the kind of night America’s come to revile.
Same as it ever was.