FOXBORO -- Two plays into their final drive, the beating the Titans had taken at the hands of the Patriots defense led to some frayed emotions. That it took that long might be considered a moral victory since the Tennessee side of the box score was in tatters long before that.
On a second-and-10 play, with almost six minutes left and the score 35-7, Marcus Mariota scrambled to his left. And as was the case for much of the night, Marquis Flowers served as the spy on the play. The Patriots linebacker chased Mariota from the opposite hash all the way to the Titans sideline and out of bounds after a six-yard gain. Fairly innocuous.
PATRIOTS 35, TITANS 14
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When Mariota walked back in the direction of his huddle, he was silent, according to Flowers, but his teammates weren't. Flowers may have goaded them. He insists he didn't say anything to Mariota, but he was at the very least looking in the quarterback's direction -- the two competed in the Pac-12 when Arizona took on Oregon years ago -- as if to say, "We've been in your hip pocket all night."
That led to Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan getting in Flowers' face, which led to an official having to break up the mess.
"It's the guys on the outside, the guys on the sideline trying to protect their guy," Flowers said after the game. "I don't know from what because it was really nothing. But I don't know. Obviously, they probably were frustrated."
And with good reason. To that point, Mariota had already been sacked six times, and New England's plan to dedicate a defender to chasing him all over the field effectively checked off one of the two items the Patriots wanted accomplish defensively on Saturday: Contain Mariota.
He was sacked eight times by the end of the Patriots' 35-14 Divisional Round win -- a franchise record in New England -- he ran for only 37 yards, and though he finished with a 98.3 quarterback rating he wasn't able to hit enough throws to sustain drives and help his offense keep pace with what Tom Brady was doing on the other side.
The other item on the checklist? Stop the run. The Patriots did that with their big bodies up front, limiting Derrick Henry to 28 yards on 12 attempts -- a 2.3 per-carry average -- after he rumbled to 156 yards the previous week in Kansas City.
There was really very little question the Patriots would be able to slow down Tennessee's run game, though. They wouldn't be beaten in the same fashion as the Chiefs. They were going to force the Titans to go elsewhere.
What was less predictable was how exactly they would prevent Mariota from ripping off chunk plays and key first downs with his legs. Though no one was divulging the game plan in the home team's locker room after the fact, it looked like they simply ripped a page (or several) from the plan they used just a few weeks ago.
In Week 16 against the Bills, Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia used Marquis Flowers as a spy to shadow Tyrod Taylor and prevent the athletic quarterback with little in the way of receiver firepower from running wild. They weren't afraid to play man-to-man coverage in that game, which benefited the skill sets of their corners, because they had a dedicated set of eyes spying in the backfield.
It was more of the same in the Divisional Round. Tight man coverage forced a lackluster group of Titans pass-catchers to win their one-on-one matchups, which they did on their first scoring drive of the game. When they couldn't get open, when Mariota got antsy in the pocket, the Patriots had people waiting for him. Oftentimes it was Flowers floating at the second level.
"They did a good job," Mariota said. "They had a guy spying me throughout the game trying to keep me within the pocket and you’ve got to give a lot of credit to them. They covered well and I just wasn’t able to get the ball out."
A special teams specialist for the Bengals before the start of this season, the Patriots traded for Flowers when it looked like the depth on their kick-coverage units was lacking. He immediately gave them a boost there, and toward the end of the regular season he established himself as a legitimate go-to option defensively. He had 2.5 sacks against the Bills on Christmas Eve.
Including the Titans game, Flowers has played 325 defensive snaps this season. In two seasons with the Bengals, he played 96 snaps total on defense.
"Quis is Quis," said Kyle Van Noy. "He's an athlete, and sometimes I wonder why a team didn't use him because he's a good athlete and makes plays."
Flowers had four tackles in the game and one sack. When he dropped Mariota in the backfield, he was able to do it in part because of the roaming spy role he'd played to that point. Aligned on the Titans' left edge, Flowers initially stayed home when Mariota surveyed the field to throw. Lewan, thinking Flowers wasn't a rush threat, turned inside to help on Trey Flowers' interior pass rush.
That was the green light. Marquis Flowers bolted ahead, past Lewan without being touched, and finished the play before it could get started.
The Patriots' dedication to limiting Mariota scrambles played with his psyche for much of the evening, it seemed. Flowers' presence at the linebacker level kept Mariota in the pocket on Tennessee's first drive of the night, and power rushes from Deatrich Wise (two sacks) and Trey Flowers (one sack) got to the quarterback. There were also two separate occasions when Van Noy was the one clogging escape lanes or chasing Mariota from the pocket, and allowing teammates to hustle back into the play to bring down Mariota. Adam Butler and Wise were both beneficiaries of Van Noy's work in that regard.
"I was trying to be Steve Nash," Van Noy said. "Trying to pass the rock. It worked out, you know. If somebody gets a sack, we take it as a group sack. It takes everybody doing their job on that play to get the sack."
As the Patriots lead built, that forced Mariota into more passing situations. But his legs remained a focus, and he was trapped in his own pocket for much of the game with nowhere to go. Even without help from spies, Ricky Jean Francois (one sack) and Geneo Grissom (two) contributed to Mariota's nightmarish evening by simply winning their matchups in the trenches.
"Our continuity has gotten better," Belichick said. "Our execution has gotten better on the pass-rush. It always helps to play from ahead so you can make the game one dimensional, make it a passing game. It’s always easier to rush the passer in that situation.
"But, we’ve had a lot of guys step up – Marquis, Adam Butler, Deatrich, Ricky had a couple good rushes. It’s good to have Kyle back. So, a lot of different guys contribute . . . Some of the guys that are playing now weren’t playing. If we had had this conversation in the middle of the season, you wouldn’t be asking about them. They’ve stepped into different roles and they’ve worked together more, gotten a better feel for each other, execution’s better, so it’s good."
For a team that ranked 18th in sacks during the regular season and at times struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks, the performance that got the Patriots into the AFC title game was better than good. It was redemptive.
"We take pride in it," Van Noy said. "Everybody says we suck at pass rush. But we're here and we continue to shut people up. That's what we're going to keep doing . . . It was fun tonight."