FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (USA TODAY Sports) — To borrow the words of the late Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.”
Did anyone really think the New England Patriots, who thumped the Tennessee Titans 35-14 Saturday night, would take the field in the divisional round of the playoffs and look like anything less than the New England Patriots?
Sure, Tom Brady had just emerged from a less-than-stellar December (completing just 61.3% of his passes while recording six touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 81.6).
Yep, the Patriots defense had struggled this season against mobile quarterbacks — think Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton — and that provided a degree of hope for the Titans and their dual-threat signal-caller Marcus Mariota.
And yes, there had been whispers about friction between owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and Brady. Such speculation, fueled by an explosive ESPN story, raised the question about the immediate and long-term stability of the union.
But keep it real. These are still the Patriots.
Belichick remains the best game-planner of all, while Brady remains an effective future Hall of Famer, recording his 13th career 300-yard-postseason game.
Maine's Pats Superfans!
Brady was as surgical as ever, throwing dart after dart, unaffected by mayhem around the pocket. He even made a few you-gotta-be-kidding-me throws that make it worth wondering if the TB12 Method and practices have indeed made him ageless.
And, regardless of the whispers suggesting cracks in the foundation, New England still boasts one of the strongest top-to-bottom rosters, and those 53 players and their coaches share the common goal of winning yet another Super Bowl.
And that’s why the Patriots dispatched the Titans with apparent ease to punch a ticket to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game, where they will host the winner of the Pittsburgh-Jacksonville game on Jan. 21.
The Titans simply found themselves overmatched on virtually every front.
The quarterback position best illustrated the discrepancies between these two teams. Mariota, making only the second playoff start of his career, facing off with Brady, who entered the game boasting an NFL record 25 postseason victories.
Mariota had virtually willed the Titans to victory in the wild-card round, throwing a pair of touchdown passes (one to himself), scrambling to both extend plays and pick up chunks of yards and even throwing a key block while directing a 22-21 comeback over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Mariota’s strong play briefly carried into Saturday night’s game as he closed out the first quarter with a touchdown drive that featured the same well-rounded effectiveness.
But the Patriots responded with a touchdown drive of their own, and then added another, and then a third, a fourth and a fifth before Tennessee found the end zone again with just less than two minutes left to play.
What made the offensive display so impressive was the fact that the Patriots moved the ball at will against one of the best minds in the game in Tennessee defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The 80-year-old found himself pitted against familiar foes in Brady and Belichick for the ninth time in his career. But the familiarity did little good as LeBeau again struggled to find an answer for Brady.
The quarterback entered the game owning a 6-2 record against LeBeau, including a 2-0 playoff mark. In those eight games against LeBeau’s units prior to Saturday, Brady had recorded 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions while completing 68% of his passes for 2,496 yards and a passer rating of 110.9.
Add another 337 yards and three touchdowns to those tallies.
Meanwhile, as Brady spread the ball around and racked up yards and touchdowns, the Patriots’ defense essentially shut the Titans down, yielding only six second-half first downs while sacking Mariota seven times after halftime.
Anti-Patriots factions spent Saturday night crowing over calls against the Titans that appeared questionable and helped extend New England drives. An offensive pass interference call, a Tennessee neutral zone infraction and unnecessary roughness calls ranked among the head-scratchers.
But truthfully, the Patriots didn’t need any help from the officials.
Nothing was going to deter New England Saturday. And if the defending champs continue to roll like this next week in the AFC Championship Game, it’s hard to envision anything preventing the Patriots from achieving their ultimate goal, again.