With New England advancing to the AFC Championship game, here are some thoughts from Saturday night’s win over Tennessee.
1) Brady’s back – After a rough December where quarterback Tom Brady was clearly banged up and didn’t exactly have his best month, the veteran came out Saturday night and played well. Despite a rough start which saw him complete just 3-of-7 on his first two series, Brady got to work on New England’s 3rd drive and hit five straight passes as New England knotted the score at 7-7 thanks to a 5-yard touchdown by James White to answer Tennessee’s own scoring drive.
Brady had a huge second quarter, completing 16-of-22 (73%) for 154 yards and two touchdowns as New England ran off 21 unanswered points, putting the Titans on their heels while giving the Patriots control of the game that they never relinquished.
The Titans did a good job of getting pressure on him, but Brady made some terrific throws, including one where he dropped one throw in that he threw completely back across his body on a 3rd-and-10 to Danny Amendola early in the fourth quarter. That play was huge, and it kept the drive going while leading to Brady’s third touchdown to Rob Gronkowski.
Overall, Brady finished the night 35-of-53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns. It was his 13th career 300-yard postseason performance and it extended his NFL record ahead of Peyton Manning, who had nine. He also threw three touchdowns in a postseason game for the 10th time in his career, moving him past Joe Montana (who had 9) for most all-time.
As a result, it’s a strong start for a player who is looking for his sixth championship and one that should have fans feeling pretty optimistic heading into next weekend.
2) The Defense Settled in and played well – After giving up a long scoring drive early in the game to the Titans, which put the Patriots in a 7-0 hole, New England’s defense began to figure things out and as the offense built a lead, this group really did a terrific job of helping them keep it.
They managed to put together a terrific pass rush against Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, making him uncomfortable and as the game wore on, they started dropping him fairly consistently. New England’s defense sacked him an incredible eight times on Saturday night, seven of which came in the final two quarters as the Titans’ offense became one-dimensional as they tried to get back in the game.
Overall, Mariota finished 22-of-37 for 254 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the number of times the defense was able to bring him down for a loss was big because it put them in long-yardage situations. That killed several drives and put the ball back in the hands of New England’s offense, which often ended up with good field position.
It wasn’t perfect, but it should give fans a reason to believe this group should be able to do just enough should they advance from here.
Amendola came up big Saturday night.
3) Big Night For Danny Amendola – One of the hopes of this postseason was that the Patriots would start getting a little more production in the passing game and Amendola played a big part in that Saturday night.
Overall, Amendola was targeted 13 times with 11 receptions for a team-high 112 yards, including a perfect 5-of-5 on third down with 5 first downs. He was also flawless handling punts, which given the cold, damp conditions they were dealing with, is another point that can’t go unnoticed.
Bill Belichick admitted after the game that Amendola is sometimes a player that people take for granted, but he delivered again.
“Danny does a great job for us,” said Belichick. “His ball handling, his reliability, dependability is exceptional. As you said, handling the ball on these punts in conditions like tonight, it’s not easy. And, as we saw, there were several times when he had guys breathing right down on top of him, standing right there when he was catching the ball, so it just put a little more pressure on it. But, Danny has great concentration, tough, really a smart football player, makes good decisions, good judgment, knows how to get open, makes some big catches in tough situations. So, he’s kind of guy you take for granted, but he delivered a lot tonight, as he always does.”
Lewis continues to run the ball well for the Patriots.
4) Lewis Lead the Way – Dion Lewis picked right up from where he left off and was another key performer for New England in their win. Lewis rushed for 62 yards on 15 carries (4.1 average) and was dominant again, moving the chains and really making things tough on the Titans.
The biggest problem for Tennessee was the fact that while they kept him in check early, Lewis got stronger as the game went on and that allowed New England’s offense to keep them completely off balance. To make matters worse, Lewis was also lethal in the passing game, with Brady hitting him on 9-of-10 passes for 79 yards, including a perfect 2-of-2 in the red zone including a touchdown.
After the game, Lewis was pleased with how they were able to settle down after a shaky start.
“The first two drives we started a little slow, but then we picked it up after that,” said Lewis. “We just had to settle into the game and have everybody calm down. Once everybody settled in, we knew what we had to do.”
Gronk had a strong outing in his first postseason in two years.
5) Another Gronk-worthy performance – Rob Gronkowski finally got to play in the postseason for the first time in a couple of seasons and he didn’t disappoint.
The veteran tight end finished catching 6 of his 9 targets for 81 yards, including his 10th career playoff touchdown, extending his NFL record for postseason touchdowns by a tight end. What’s impressive about his stats is the fact that every one of his receptions resulted in first downs and despite how hard Tennessee tried to shut him down, it’s incredible to watch someone of his size show off such terrific quickness as Gronkowski was able to put several moves that somehow left him wide open.
Gronkowski was also big on third down, catching two of the three passes thrown his way for 21 yards.
The veteran tight end said after the game that after missing last year’s playoff run, he was glad to be part of postseason football.
“It feels great to be back out there in the hometown, home game in front of our home fans,” said Gronkowski. “It’s super great to be back and it was a great team win.”
The good news for Gronk is that he’ll get to play in front of them one more time next weekend in the AFC Championship Game.