For the past two decades, the hardest question NFL teams had to confront each season was, “How can we stop the New England Patriots?” Turns out the answer was simple: Wait until January 2020, when they’ll play like crap and make a bunch of mistakes. The Tennessee Titans deployed that strategy to perfection during Saturday’s wild-card round, beating New England 20-13 on the strength of their ground game and the weakness of the Patriots’ … pretty much everything.
If this game is ever considered a classic, it will be because it represented the death-belch of the Patriots dynasty. Otherwise, it was merely a mess. The only score of the second half came on a Tom Brady pick-6, which came after the Titans pinned New England on its own 1-yard line with 15 seconds remaining.
Brady finished the game with 209 yards and 0 touchdowns, though it’d be unfair to pin the loss totally on him. The usually reliable Julian Edelman dropped a key fourth quarter catch. Offensive lineman Shaq Mason inexplicably wandered downfield, nullifying a long Brady pass to Ben Watson. And Bill Belichick, the Palpatine to Brady’s Vader, made a pair of baffling decisions in the fourth quarter, twice electing to punt on 4th-and-short. The first of those punts came with 12:52 remaining, the second with 3:17 left on the clock. Considering New England’s deficit was just a single point in both instances, the moves were as timid as they were stupid. Strong words, sure, but you never really get the chance to call Belichick dumb or cowardly so I’m going to pounce on this opportunity while I can. What a dunce! Nice going, dingbat!
Meanwhile, Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel, who both played under Belichick and worked for him as an assistant, used his mentor’s special brand of gridiron shenanigans against him. Late in the fourth quarter, the Titans purposefully took a delay of game and then a false-start penalty while in punt formation, bleeding almost two minutes off the clock. Now, this was a situation where Tennessee really should’ve gone for it (it was 4th-and-5 before all the flags) just like the Pats should have, but it worked out for Vrabel so we get to call him a genius now. Fair is fair.
Let’s also praise Vrabel for benching quarterback Marcus Mariota after the Titans’ 2–4 start this season and naming Ryan Tannehill the team’s starter. The former Dolphins playcaller went on a tear and led Tennessee to the playoffs, though that tear hasn’t exactly carried into the postseason (yet). Tannehilll threw for 72 yards, 1, touchdown, and 1 interception on Saturday. All that mattered was his first drive, which resulted in a touchdown, and his last, which killed enough time off the clock to basically secure the win. But still … 72 yards! That’s Flacco-esque, though in the best possible way.
Tannehill didn’t need to be great when he could hand the ball off to Derrick Henry. The Titans running back rushed for 182 yards and a touchdown and is the biggest non-Patriots-badness-related reason Tennessee will be playing next weekend. Henry plays like an H.R. Giger monster, and he’s been the NFL’s best rusher all season. In the third quarter, CBS showed clips of Henry in high school to demonstrate the size discrepancy between him and normal teenagers. That footage didn’t look all that different from what we saw on Saturday night against New England.
The Patriots put up some history-making defensive numbers for much of the regular season, but Henry treated them like a cloud of gnats. New England couldn’t get its own run game going, and a Titans goal-line stand in the second quarter would be the evening’s turning point. Tennessee held the Patriots to a field goal, then marched down their throats for the go-ahead touchdown. Henry touched the ball on every play of that 75-yard drive. New England wouldn’t score again.
It was an appropriate end for this New England team. After storming out to an 8–0 start during the regular season, they finished 4–4 and were one-and-done in the postseason. These Patriots were undone by their lack of offensive playmakers and Brady’s poor play, with the latter at least to some extent connected to the former.
It’s shockingly uncharacteristic for the Belichick-and-Brady Patriots to fizzle out in a haze of dumb mistakes and poor game-planning, but that’s exactly what happened. And now, with Brady a 42-year-old free agent, the quarterback’s future is in doubt, as is the fate of the franchise he’s led to six Super Bowl titles.
What’s next for the Patriots? We’ll have to wait a while to find out. (Maybe Belichick wanted them to lose for some reason. Don’t doubt the guy, unless he’s punting.) What’s next for the Titans? They’ll go as far as Derrick Henry will carry them, which might not be beyond Baltimore, where they’ll face Lamar Jackson and the Ravens next weekend. Can’t play the Patriots every week, sadly.