Curran's Patriots-Titans preview/review: Even better than expected
Dissension. Dysfunction. Tension. Those words were front and center in Foxboro this week, seemingly sharing a locker with Brady and Gronkowski and McCourty. All of it was expected to have some sort of affect on the Patriots' performance against the Titans in the divisional round.
Tom E. Curran didn't address any of that in his game preview, but what DID he address? What did Tom get right in his preview? What did he get wrong? Let's take a look . . .
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Here are your keys. First, if the Patriots can bottle up Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and keep him from being a game-wrecker in the Titans 3-4, they will have covered step one. That falls to left guard Joe Thuney and left tackle Nate Solder. Second, get after Adoree Jackson. Logan Ryan is smart, has great ball skills and is a very good tackler. Steer clear of his side in the secondary and instead make a run at the corner on the other side. He’s a rookie. He’s fast as hell so Brandin Cooks isn’t going to run past him. But if he and Tom Brady are going to get on the same page they were early in the season – especially with back-shoulder stuff – Jackson could be had. Light up the LBs. The Patriots can’t try and get everything done in the air and outside the numbers. They will need to take advantage of the zone blitz-action of Dick LeBeau with screens, traps, reverses, draws – all of it. Tennessee might come out with a game plan that will confound for a while. But it won’t last. Drive-starters early will be of huge importance for New England. Get some chunks on first down and get into a drive and into a rhythm so it’s not three-to-five plays and out. See what LeBeau’s got cooked up. The sooner it’s unveiled, the sooner the Patriots can get separation.
The Patriots first drive fizzled after they moved across midfield. A Tennessee blitz on third down was able to make Brady hurry enough to throw incomplete. A third-and-8 completion to Danny Amendola kept their next drive going, but a hurried throw to Gronkowski while the Titans were getting set wound up being at Gronk’s ankles. The Patriots next drive featured a 31-yard screen pass to Dion Lewis off of a double-reverse play action. The Patriots capped it with a jet sweep to James White. A short punt on Tennessee’s third drive gave the Patriots the ball at the Titans 48 and a succession of plays covering 13, 8, 9, 5, 7 and 6 put New England in the end zone with White scoring again. The Patriots ended up with a penalty-aided touchdown drive late in the half as the Titans got flagged for a neutral-zone infraction on a punt, a defensive hold on Gronk and an unnecessary roughness flag after a punch was thrown by Erik Walden to Nate Solder’s facemask. A miscommunication on second-and-goal between Brady and Brandin Cooks was covered on third-and-goal with a TD pass to Chris Hogan. The Patriots were 6 for 9 in the first half on third down. After a punt on their first possession of the third quarter, the Patriots kicked into overdrive with a nine-play, 56-yard drive capped by Brandon Bolden. They scored again after another misbegotten Tennessee drive beginning the fourth as Brady flipped a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski. Amendola finished the night with 112 yards on 11 catches. Dion Lewis had nine for 79. He also ran for 61 on 15 carries.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Patriots just need to do what they’ve been doing between the tackles against the running game and do a better job on the perimeter getting backs to turn up inside. Derrick Henry is a load but if the Patriots can set a solid edge (and James Harrison’s in town for precisely that reason) then the linebacker and safeties can clean Henry up. Beyond that, the edge is vital for keeping Marcus Mariota from rolling up yards on the ground with read-option. The Patriots will have to play zone coverage because Mariota’s a threat to run. That means communication on tight end Delanie Walker deep threat Corey Davis and the Titans most productive wideout Rishard Matthews is vital. The Patriots may give up yards. But don’t expect many points.
The Patriots allowed a big play to Delanie Walker (36 yards) and an 11-yard Mariota scramble on the Titans second drive as Tennessee moved out beyond midfield then got a third-and-3 completion to Rishard Matthews on Eric Rowe. The drive was capped by a Mariota to Corey Davis touchdown which required a perfect throw and catch from 19 yards out. After that, an Eric Decker swim move on third-and-4 led to a penalty wiping out a first down. The Titans got their only decent play of the quarter – a 22-yarder to Eric Decker – on their next drive but the Patriots stiffened there as Stephon Gilmore continued to have a nice first half. Kyle Van Noy blew up a fourth-and-1 play from the Patriots 48 with 46 seconds left in the half. Derrick Henry finished the first half with 24 yards on 11 carries. Walker had two catches for 40. The Tians removed all hope of coming back of their own accord. They got whistled for a hold on the second play of the second half, had false starts on the first play of their next two drives and yielded four sacks in the quarter as it got silly. Weirdly, Mariota had a better quarterback rating than Brady after three quarters. He finished 22 for 37 for 254 yards and eight (!!) sacks. Derrick Henry managed just 28 yards on 12 carries. His longest carry was 4 yards.
THE KICKING GAME
The Titans punter, Brett Kern is a big hitter. He averaged 49.7 gross and 44.6 net on his punts. More than half of his punts were returned, though, while Patriots punter Ryan Allen doesn’t boom as often but only had 23 of his 58 punts returned. (Better offense for the Pats enters into that). Ryan Succop missed seven field goals outside 40 yards and two extra points this season. Stephen Gostkowski missed just three field goals all year and two PATs as well. The Patriots main returners are Dion Lewis on kickoffs and Danny Amendola on punts. Adoree Jackson holds down both jobs for the Titans.
Allen’s first two punts had the Titans starting their drives at the 8 and the 5-yard lines. Kern, who Belichick raved about all week, hit one fat on his third punt -- a 36-yarder -- and the Patriots were in business at the Titans 48. Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal just before halftime from 53 yards away. Amendola fielded seven punts and squeezed off a nice 12-yard return on one while also -- on a windy night -- doing a solid job fair-catching punts with Titans all around him.
PATRIOTS MEDICAL REPORT
QUESTIONABLE: RB Mike Gillislee (knee), RB Rex Burkhead (knee), RB James White (ankle), LB Marquis Flowers (illness), DT Alan Branch (knee), DL Eric Lee (ankle/finger)
La’Adrian Waddle left in the third quarter with a knee injury.
TITANS MEDICAL REPORT
OUT: RB Demarco Murray (knee)
Right tackle Jack Conklin left during the Titans second drive with a leg injury. Delanie Walker hurt his wrist on a Patrick Chung tackle. Didn’t look bad but Walker, whose wrist was heavily taped even though he wasn’t listed on the injury report, reacted as if hurt. Tight end Jonnu Smith was injured on a kickoff and had to be carted off
GAME WITHIN THE GAME
Red zone offense. Both for both teams. This is a hidden stat for New England that explains why they can be seemingly average in overall stats but still be the best team in football. Offensively, they went 25 for 36 scoring touchdowns on red zone trips during the final eight games of the season. In the first eight games? They were 17 for 34. That’s a massive improvement – 70 percent touchdowns on red zone trips up from 50 percent. The Eagles were the best team in the league in the red zone over 16 games – 65 percent TDs. Tennessee, meanwhile, scored TDs on 52.5 percent of their red zone trips over 16 games. Over their final eight, they were 11 for 20. Last week they were 1 for 2. Defensively, the Patriots allowed eight touchdowns in 23 red zone trips over the final eight games. That’s 34 percent conversions. Over 16 games, the Chargers were the NFL’s best defense in the red zone at 36.1 percent. Tennessee’s defense allowed 10 TDs in 28 red zone trips over the final eight games. That’s 36 percent. The Chiefs were 3 for 3 last week, which means … I don’t know what it means. But the Titans can’t be out there kicking field goals.
The Patriots were 5 for 5 in the red zone. That means the Titans were 8 for 8 allowing red zone touchdowns in the playoffs. That’s bad. Tennessee went 2 for 2 on its red zone trips. But while that success looks gaudy, they got their once in the first half then didn’t get there again until it was 35-7..
TITANS GOTTA STOP
Rob Gronkowski. Last week in the Wild Card round, Travis Kelce had four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown before getting concussed at the end of the first half with the Chiefs leading 21-3. Gronk is better than Kelce. Tom Brady is better than Alex Smith. The Titans best figure out how to deal with one of the NFL’s most dominant skill position players who happens to be playing at his all-time best.
Gronk caught six of the nine balls sent his way for 81 yards and a touchdown. Danny Amendola and James White were the ones who did the most damage, though.
PATRIOTS GOTTA STOP
Jurrell Casey. At 6-1, 300 pounds, the lightning-quick heavyman is the central focus of the Patriots offensive line this week. "He’s a great player," Bill Belichick said this week. "He does a good job, very active, strong in the running game. He’s not a real long guy, but he plays with great leverage. He’s got very good quickness. He’s a disruptive player. He’s quick enough to get up field and get the edge. He’s explosive and powerful enough to knock guys back, so he can win with his quickness, win with his strength, win with his power.” Joe Thuney better hold on for dear life.
Brady wasn’t sacked. There were four quarterback hits – one by Casey. The Patriots did a nice job with protection and Brady stood in with traffic around him and found more in-the-middle throws than he’s had in a while.
THAT SUMS IT UP PATRIOTS STYLE
“We know how teams are trying to attack us because they’ll look at the success that other mobile quarterbacks might have had against us. So, we know we’re going to have to be ready to fix the mistakes that we might have had against those mobile quarterbacks. And, we know when you give up something on tape, a team is always going to try to test you there and see if you got the problem fixed, and if not, they’re going to keep running it. So, we’ve just got to look back and do a little self-scouting on ourselves and see where we’re vulnerable at when going against mobile quarterbacks.” – Duron Harmon, Patriots safety, on dealing with a roving Mariota.
The Patriots did a terrific job bottling up Mariota. They used a “spy” on him on third downs and while he got free for 37 yards on four carries, they also put him on the ground eight times.
THAT SUMS IT UP TITANS STYLE
“They are the home team, they are the favorites, and they are going to be confident. It’s going to be rocking. But it’s not going to be louder than Kansas City - it’s probably the loudest venue I’ve been in. So it won’t be any louder. … (Brady) can make every throw there is, and he can throw it to everybody so everybody has to be on their Ps and Qs and do their job. And we have to bring it. We can’t be mentally defeated out there walking around. Everyone has to do their job to help the team.” – Logan Ryan, Titans corner and former Patriot, on being ready for Saturday.
The Titans competed well enough for the first 15. They left that quarter up 7-0. It was just that second quarter onslaught of points that had Tennessee giving up the ghost in the third.
THE CREW, THE BOOTH, AND THE LINE
n Torbert. It’s a so-called “all-star crew” in the postseason in which officials who perform well with their own crews during the season are thrown together for the playoff games. That means that Torbert’s crew – which was a little on the flag-happy side – won’t be in full effect. The line is 13.5, the total is 47 and the booth is CBS’ lead team of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo.
The Titans had a costly OPI on their third drive wiping out a third down conversion. Later, the officials called the Patriots for a false start on a punt then switched it to a neutral zone infraction on Tennessee, giving the Patriots a first down. Two more Tennessee penalties on that drive helped the Patriots extend a touchdown drive. On the Titans final drive of the first half, Kyle Van Noy got a piece of Derrick Henry’s facemask and wasn’t flagged on a fourth-down play. The first three drives of the second half were harpooned by Titan penalties. They finished with 10 penalties for 62 yards. The Patriots had four for 37. The Patriots and the over was the play tonight. … Patriots and over. Sorry.
THE WINNER IS...
Patriots 27, Titans 13
Patriots 35, Titans 14