FOXBORO -- Here are five quick thoughts from the Patriots' 35-14 romp over the Titans during their Saturday night Divisional Round boogie down at Gillette Stadium . . .
PATRIOTS 35, TITANS 14
1) The Patriots took advantage of the Titans by turning to "space plays" time and time again. Because Tennessee's second-level defenders aren't all that quick, and because the Titans in general aren't great tacklers, the Patriots seemed to be intent on stretching their opponents horizontally to give them some one-on-one matchups in space. If they could force a missed tackle or two, they'd end up with chunk gains? The results of that approach paid dividends in the first half. On the first play of the game, Brady hit Danny Amendola on a quick-hitter for six yards. Dion Lewis caught a 31-yard screen, putting his skills to use in the open field. James White's touchdown catch -- a little flip from Brady -- was an end-around play that stressed the edges of the Titans defense. Brady hit Cooks short on the sideline for a long gainer after he ran by Adoree Jackson's horrendous tackle attempt.
2) The Patriots had breakdowns on multiple levels during Tennessee's first touchdown drive of the game. The Patriots came into the game knowing they'd have to stop the run. They also knew that they'd have to contain Marcus Mariota and keep him in the pocket. What happened on the second Titans drive of the game was that Mariota broke free for two key first-down runs and 22 yards combined. Then, when the Patriots were able to keep Mariota in the pocket and dare him to throw, they lost their matchups in coverage too often. Delanie Walker broke free for a 36-yard gain on a coverage bust. Rishard Matthews picked up a key third down. And Corey Davis hauled in a nifty one-handed touchdown off a stop-and-go move with Malcolm Butler on him in coverage. If they Patriots were going to let Mariota try to beat them from the pocket, they had to be better on the back end.
3) Chris Hogan made his presence felt in the first half. He caught just one pass for four yards on three targets, but his catch was a four-yard touchdown and it served as an example of how he and Tom Brady see things through the same set of eyes. Running his route across the field, he saw an opening to the back left corner of the end zone and made a beeline. With Rob Gronkowski smothered despite a pick-play combination with James White, and with White doubled at the goal line, Hogan was wide open. On the previous play, Brandin Cooks read his defender's leverage incorrectly on the back end line. Brady threw to where Cooks should've been, and the pass fell incomplete. To have Hogan -- who also threw a vicious block on Wesley Woodyard during a Dion Lewis catch-and-run -- back in the fold clearly gives Brady an option he trusts.
4) Why would the Patriots receive after winning the coin toss before the opening kick? Don't they always defer for the double-score opportunity at the end of the first half and the start of the second? Look no further than the flags atop the goal posts. With the wind playing a very real factor on Saturday night, Bill Belichick wanted to be able to decide which way his team would be headed when they had the football in the fourth quarter. By taking the football in the first quarter, they would be able to choose their direction at the start of the third. Predictably, when the start of the second half came around, the Patriots chose to defend the closed end of the stadium. That meant that in the fourth quarter, their offensive drives were moving away from the lighthouse end of the stadium. Kicking (and throwing) is typically a little bit easier when headed away from the lighthouse.
5) The Patriots defense grabbed this game by the throat about midway through the third quarter. First Ricky Jean Francois (who got the nod to play in this one over Alan Branch) beat guard Quinton Spain clean for a first-down sack. After the play, Spain complained to left tackle Taylor Lewan that he should've had help. On the next snap, Lewan quickly looked to his left and saw Marquis Flowers hanging out. Flowers had been a Mariota spy for much of the game to that point, and so Lewan likely didn't see a rush threat. As a result, Lewan turned to his right and helped Spain -- the guy who had just been whining. As soon as Lewan took his eyes off of Flowers, the Patriots linebacker rushed and hit Mariota unimpeded for a second straight sack. Lewan never had a shot. That's what he gets for trying to be a good teammate.
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