Phil Perry's Patriots-Titans report card
They didn't need it, but Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia -- both of whom are about to accept gigs as head coaches -- added a tidy little coda to their respective resumes by beating up on the Titans in the Divisional Round.
Defensively they had two objectives: Stop the run and contain the mobile quarterback. Outside of one drive, they did both.
Offensively they knew they had to decipher between man-to-man (which Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau relied upon much more than usual this season) and zone, and they had to get their playmakers in space. They did both. With ease.
This game wasn't the last chance that McDaniels and Patricia had to bolster their reputations before moving on to new jobs. They'll have at least the AFC title game and maybe the Super Bowl to further cement their legacies as two of the best assistants Bill Belichick has ever had. But the Divisional Round served as an example of how both are at the tops of their respective professions, and how they're ready to climb the last rung on the coaching ladder.
Because his performance over the last month of the regular season was below the standard Tom Brady set for himself early in the year, there were those who wondered if his age was finally catching up with him. In reality, it was probably a combination of a few things, namely that he'd been beat up over the course of the year, and that he was without a few of his most trusted weapons down the stretch. What Brady did against the Titans should hit the pause button on any concerns that he was nearing Max Kellerman's Cliff. Outside of a few off-the-mark throws -- a hurried incompletion to Rob Gronkowski on New England's second drive, a missed third-down opportunity to Gronkowski in one-on-one coverage midway through the second quarter, and an awkward back-shoulder throw to Gronkowski to start the fourth -- Brady was dialed in. His first throw to a tightly-covered Gronkowski was perfect. He was accurate on the short stuff, allowing his pass-catchers to go to work on the Titans less-than-stellar tacklers. He adeptly ran the hurry-up. And his scramble-drill, fadeaway, Derek-Jeter-in-the-hole toss to Danny Amendola was ridiculous. He set the record for playoff games with three touchdown passes (10) in this one, and in the process put to bed (for now) any thoughts that he's slowing down late in his 18th season.
RUNNING BACK: A-
This was going to be a big backs-in-the-passing-game matchup for the Patriots all along. The Titans were the league's worst defense when it came to stop running backs out of the backfield, and it just so happened that the Patriots had two talented pass-catchers available to exploit them in Dion Lewis and James White. A third, Rex Burkhead, who may have made the final score even more lopsided if healthy, was on ice due to injury. Turns out they didn't need him. They combined for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 32 touches. If not for a pair of drops by White, this would be a straight "A."
Danny Amendola carried this group with a performance that had all of his higher-ups -- Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady -- singing his praises in the days following the game. Brady called him incredible. Belichick called him underrated for his clutch performances. And McDaniels called it a privilege to coach him. Amendola's ability to find open space by understanding the leverage defensive backs used against him is second-to-none in this year's receiver group. And his telepathic connection with his quarterback on Brady's fall-away throw showed just how locked in that pair can be. When he's healthy, and when it's playoff time, there are few players Brady trusts more. The Patriots are guilty of limiting Amendola's workload during the regular season at times, but to have him available to them now is more important. The reins are off. Brandin Cooks has a way to go before reaching the wavelength that Amendola shares with Brady. He caught just three of eight targets, and two of those incompletions were confidence-killers. One came in the red zone, where Cooks misread his defender's leverage, running toward the defense instead of away from it. Brady's throw went to the opening, which should've resulted in an easy touchdown. The other throw where Cooks' effort could've been better was deep down the field when it appeared as though he didn't extend fully for Brady's bomb. They'll need more from him moving forward to keep defenses honest. Chris Hogan, the only other receiver who saw playing time, laid a vicious block on a Dion Lewis run, showing his shoulder must be close to full-strength. He also made good on the drive when Cooks missed his shot at a score. When a pick route wasn't able to free Rob Gronkowski, Hogan was one of Brady's next options. He found open space in the back corner of the end zone and Brady found him easily.
TIGHT END: A-
Because the Titans run defense was so well-respected by the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels opted to make this a spread-'em-out-and-chuck-it type of game. The numbers bear that out. Tom Brady attempted 53 passes and the Patriots gave it to their backs just 23 times. That meant it wasn't a big game for New England's second and third tight ends. Dwayne Allen played 23 snaps and Jacob Hollister saw seven. What the Patriots got from their No. 1, though, was very good. Rob Gronkowski made difficult catches despite tight coverage from All-Pro rookie safety Kevin Byard, he drew an illegal contact penalty, and he subtly sold a receiver screen late in the second quarter by making it look like he was going to block for Danny Amendola. When he released over the middle of the field, he was wide open for a big gain that helped eventually lead to Chris Hogan's touchdown. Gronkowski's touchdown in the fourth quarter -- perhaps the final kill shot -- was remarkably similar to his two-point conversion catch against the Steelers in Week 15. He faked an inside move, released to the outside, and Byard had no chance on Brady's jump ball. Teams may want to start playing some type of vice coverage at the line of scrimmage in that situation because it looks near-unstoppable.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
The Patriots' big bodies up front allowed their share of pressure (14 total) but to hold a team to zero sacks on 53 pass attempts, that's a job well done. The fact that the interior of the line, in particular, was able to slow talented defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and Dick LeBeau's stunts was an achievement in and of itself. LaAdrian Waddle got his first start since Week 12 against the Dolphins, but suffered a knee injury that knocked him from the game and brought Cameron Fleming in. As has been the case for more than a month now, Fleming performed admirably when called upon. He didn't allow a pressure in 22 pass-blocking plays, according to Pro Football Focus. Joe Thuney was also deserving of special recognition, and not just because he had a lot on his shoulders in squaring off with Casey. The Patriots ran behind their second-year lineman on nearly half of their run plays, and they averaged 2.1 yards before contact on those plays, per PFF. A few more highlights from this group? Nate Solder did well to not retaliate when he was smacked in the face by Erik Walden, drawing a personal foul penalty; David Andrews and Shaq Mason made perfectly-executed blocks on Brandon Bolden's touchdown run; and on the final play of the third quarter, the group gave Brady eons to throw before he found Danny Amendola for a 25-yard gain.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-
Messy day in the kicking game. Lots of illegal football. Lawrence Guy was bagged for a holding call during a second-quarter Titans punt. Brandon King was flagged for unnecessary roughness on a Stephen Gostkowski third-quarter kick. Two minutes weren't even off the game clock before another Patriots specialist -- Nicholas Grigsby -- was penalized for holding on a punt return. The Patriots were on the right end of the most important special-teams penalty call of the night, though, when Geneo Grissom budged before a Patriots punt. He was initially called for the infraction, but later the call was corrected when it was determined that a Titans player crossed into the neutral zone and prompted Grissom's early movement. Gostkowski missed a 53-yarder at the end of the first half, but hard to hurt this unit's grade for that kind of kick on a bone-chilling night at Gillette Stadium. Ryan Allen continued his strong late-season surge with two punts that pinned the Titans inside their own 10, and though neither Danny Amendola nor Dion Lewis did much with their returns, they both protected the football so as not to give the Titans offense any turnover opportunities and short fields with which to work. On average, Tennessee drives began at their own 21. The Patriots will gladly take that the rest of the way.
DEFENSIVE LINE: A
There's a reason Trey Flowers called this the best game the Patriots front put together all season. They set a franchise record for sacks in a playoff game (eight), and they held bulldozing running back Derrick Henry to 2.3 yards per carry. Marcus Mariota was under pressure on almost 40 percent of his dropbacks thanks in large part to what the Patriots were able to do with their speed-to-power moves up front. It was crucial for them to move Mariota off his spot to force panicked throws while also preventing him from scrambling for big yardage. It's a delicate balance with an athletic quarterback, but Brendan Daly's unit was able to strike it. From the top of the depth chart to the bottom, from Flowers (one sack) to Geneo Grissom (two), the Patriots got production. Ricky Jean Francois, who saw playing time over Alan Branch, picked up a sack by simply beating his man clean, and fellow defensive tackles Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy were once again key in making Henry a non-factor.
The defensive game plan hinged in large part on what the Patriots were able to get from their athletic linebackers. Marquis Flowers was deployed as a spy for much of the contest, and Kyle Van Noy was key to the operation both on the edge and at the second level. We delved into why Flowers was so important to limiting Mariota on the ground here, but Van Noy's contributions were just as critical. He set the edge that forced a turnover on downs just before the end of the half. He also assisted on multiple sacks by stopping Mariota in his tracks and allowing teammates to make the play. He called himself Steve Nash after the game. James Harrison had another solid performance in his second game with the Patriots, drawing a holding penalty and stuffing Henry runs on multiple occasions. He had one impressive one-armed stuff on Tennessee's first drive of the game. When they need someone to set the edge, Harrison is a more than suitable option, it seems. "He's been very dependable," Bill Belichick said this week. Once the Patriots built an early lead and forced the Titans to throw, Elandon Roberts (20 snaps) became less a part of the scheme, but he had strong run-stuffs to early in the Titans' drives to start the first and second halves.
Stephon Gilmore was itching to see his first playoff action and he responded with a pass defensed and another strong play along the sideline to help force an incompletion. He noted after the game that the speed of the game didn't feel all that different to him when compared to the regular season, but he enjoyed the urgency associated with every snap of the playoffs. For the most part, this group was able to avoid big plays, although Delanie Walker gashed them for a 36-yard gain on Tennessee's first scoring drive of the game. Hard to tell who was at fault without knowing the coverage, but it looked like some variation of a three-deep zone, with Devin McCourty in the middle of the field with Gilmore taking one deep zone and Malcolm Butler taking the other on the opposite side of the field. Gilmore was more concerned with an underneath route (which Patrick Chung had covered), and perhaps if he dropped sooner he would've been in position to make the play. Again, hard to tell. Gilmore is a man corner through and through, but the Patriots will continue to sprinkle in zone looks, and they'll all have to be on the same page for the AFC title because busted coverages maybe the only way Blake Bortles moves the ball on them. And, yes, the Walker catch came out of a bunch formation . . . Those will continue to be a topic of conversation as long as the Patriots are playing. Butler was good not great in this one. The Corey Davis touchdown was a great throw and catch, and Butler actually did reasonably well to stick with the wideout's stop-and-go move. Can't blame him for being bored by the end when Davis caught his second score. The game was obviously in hand by then.