FOXBOROUGH – It was a tight, taut and exciting game, fun to watch, and thrilling to the finish.
We’re talking about Denver-Pittsburgh, not New England-Tennessee.
The playoff planets are lining up for the Patriots, and the alignment is looking more and more familiar. On Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots were able to vanquish the visiting Titans despite at times looking like they either had a flat tire or a few spark plugs not firing. Some four hours later, Pittsburgh overcame a late brain cramp by offensive coordinator Todd Haley to hold on and defeat the Broncos, 34-27. The Broncos loss clinched a first round bye for the Patriots, and made it possible for the Patriots to lose next week against the Jets and still be in control of the top playoff seed.
Tom Brady had a brilliant first half, then watched his offense go into neutral in the second half while the defense did its thing against Marcus Mariota and his backup, Zach Mettenberger. The Patriots finished off the Titans, 33-16, in a game which was more sloppy than dominating. Against a woebegone team like the Titans, you fortunately didn’t see a repeat of the last home game for the Patriots, who were expected to beat the Eagles handily yet suffered an unspeakable and unlikely loss.
So the Patriots go into the week assured of at worst a cherished week off after Week 17. The only thing that remains is to finish ahead of both Denver and Cincinnati. Denver would take the top playoff spot if they win out and New England loses out, by virtue of the head to head win by Denver. Since Denver and Cincinnati play each other next week, it is not possible for both Denver and Cincinnati to finish 12-4. But the Patriots can at least look forward to that week off where more injured players can heal up, especially guys like Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower and Danny Amendola.
The Patriots have a ton more material than Tennessee, and it showed. Top draft pick Mariota looked good but not at all outstanding, and had to leave the game in the second quarter after a sack by Jamie Collins where his back was bent back the wrong way. Mettenberger came in and was 20 of 28 passing for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Despite two interceptions (actually four, but two of them were negated by Patriot penalties), his rating was a respectable 91.7.
Not that it might have mattered, but if Tennessee erred in any way possible in trying to pull off a bigger upset than Philadelphia did two weeks ago, it was not going to rookie wideout Dorial Green-Beckham more often. The six-foot-five rookie out of Oklahoma was matched up against Logan Ryan for most of the game and hauled in six catches for 113 yards. He looked like Chris Matthews out there (the Seattle rookie wideout who bedeviled the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX until they put Brandon Browner on him), making leaping grabs over an overmatched Ryan. But Green-Beckham was targeted only nine times.
Instead, Tennessee tried to run the ball even when way behind. Antonio Andrews had 45 yards rushing on 14 carries, and Tennessee as a team averaged under three yards per carry. Whether or not this had anything to do with Mariota leaving the game early due to injury isn’t certain, but the second half screamed for Mettenberger to throw the ball more.
Meanwhile, the Patriot defense played very well for the most part. The Patriots sacked Titan quarterbacks five times, with Chandler Jones getting two of them. One of them, on the third play of the second quarter, was a strip sack of Mariota at the Tennessee 16. The ball rolled back into the end zone and was covered by Akiem Hicks for a touchdown that made it 14-0 Patriots at the time. Collins and Malcolm Butler had the interceptions that counted, with Collins returning his pick 51 yards in garbage time.
Brady finished 23 of 35 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns and a Brady-esque rating of 107.7. He was sacked twice, but otherwise he really wasn’t bothered much all game long. He went through a stretch of five straight incompletions around the time where the Patriots usually do their “double dip”; despite winning the coin toss and deferring, they came up empty as Stephen Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal late in the first half and the offense went three and out to begin the third quarter.
With LeGarrette Blount now the latest key Patriot to be put on injured reserve, other running backs needed to step up. James White was the leading receiver with seven catches for 71 yards and a 30-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass early in the second quarter. Of particular note was former practice squad fullback Joey Iosefa, a rookie from Hawaii. He finished with 51 yards on 14 carries and a lot of teammates standing up and taking notice.
White was involved in a play which sent Brady into outer space and elicited an interesting response from Bill Belichick in his postgame press conference. In the fourth quarter, the Patriots were at their own 24 facing third down and six. Brady hit White in the left flat, then the running back broke a few tackles and took off down the left sideline for 70 yards to the Tennessee 6. But the play was called back because Keyshawn Martin made what was a debatable illegal pick block near the line of scrimmage, and the Patriots had to punt two plays later.
Brady was screaming at back judge Rich Martinez, and was quite animated. Belichick was asked by a reporter exactly what Martin did wrong on the play. Belichick paused for a moment, collected himself and said “You’ll have to ask the league on that one.” Translated, that means that the coach didn’t agree with the call. His reaction to the question was what was noteworthy, not the typical deadpan answer.
The Patriots will claim the top playoff seed if they win out. They have completed their home schedule, and have road dates at the Jets and Miami left to play. The Jets are 9-5 after a win Saturday night at Dallas. They are also fighting for a wild card spot and would lose a tiebreaker with Kansas City and Pittsburgh if all three teams finish 11-5. Suffice it to say that the Jets will give the Patriots a good fight, but a Patriot loss next week does not damage the Patriots’ chances to nail down the one seed.
But they get that week off, and that feels good already.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary