The Rear View Mirror – Divisional Round

January 17, 2018

New England played like a Super Bowl contender as they controlled the Tennessee Titans 35-14 on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.  The contest was so one sided that Pro-Football-Reference calculated the Patriots’ win probability to be 98.4% at the start of the 3rd quarter.

Danny Amendola (80) was Tom Brady’s top target on Saturday

Photograph published by USAToday.com

 

Nine Observations from the Divisional Round…

 

Eleven of Brady’s 35 completions went toward Danny Amendola for 112 yards.  On third down, Amendola caught all five passes thrown his way, for 57 yards.  Amendola’s presence seemed to resurrect the Patriots’ quick, short passing game, as Tom Brady carved up the Tennessee zone with a 66% completion percentage, 337 yards and three touchdowns. 

 

New England’s offense got on track in their third drive, beginning at the end of the 1st quarter, when they began passing the ball to RB Dion Lewis for five, 31 (screen), and 14 yards.  The drive ended with a shovel pass to an in-motion James White, who ran behind Rob Gronkowski for a touchdown.  The scoring play was very similar to red zone plays run earlier this season, twice with Brandin Cooks and once with tight end Jacob Hollister.

 

On Brady’s first third down pass – a 14 yard completion to Rob Gronkowski – LT Nate Soldier set up perfectly based on Brady’s drop depth to force OLB Brian Orakpo too far up field and then was stout against the Titan’s last second bull rush.  On Dion Lewis’ 31-yard screen pass early in the 2nd quarter, center David Andrews and guard Joe Thuney showed good hustle, blocking 20 yards downfield.

 

Really nice pocket presence by Tom Brady early in the 2nd quarter on an eight-yard pass to Dion Lewis:  Brian Orakpo beat Soldier on an inside move and was right on top of the quarterback before Brady jumped slightly to his right, squared up, and hit his running back in the right flat. 

 

The Titans’ defense rarely blitzed and often settled for just three rushers, which helps explain the time Tom Brady had to throw in the Divisional Round game.  That being said, solid performance out of offensive line, who didn’t give up on their blocks on those slow developing plays.  LaAdrian Waddle started at right tackle for the first time in eight weeks, but injured his knee in the 3rd quarter and was replaced by Cameron Fleming.

 

Rookies Deatrich Wise Jr (91) and Adam Butler (70) have solidified the D-Line

Photograph by Matt Stone / Boston Herald

 

Against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round, Tennessee running back Derrick Henry averaged 6.8 yards on 23 carries.  On Saturday, New England held him to 2.3 yards on 12 carries.  At the end of the 2nd quarter, facing a fourth-and-one near midfield, the Titans handed the ball up the middle to Henry, but DT Ricky Jean Francois got under left guard Quinton Spain, clogged up lane, and forced the running back to improvise to the left.  Linebacker Kyle Van Noy held the point against a double team from TE Jonnu Smith and WR Eric Decker, forcing Henry to string out his run further to the left, and giving Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore time to bring the big back down behind the line of scrimmage for a change of possession.

 

The Patriots’ defensive line showed discipline by consistently maintaining their position before closing in on the ball.  On a run in the 1st quarter, LB James Harrison set the edge against the Titans’ tight end, and then got off the block to bring down Derrick Henry.  A few plays later, DT Adam Butler split a double team by center Ben Jones and guard Josh Kline to force Marcus Mariota up in the pocket and into the waiting arms of Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr for a sack.

 

Cornerback Malcolm Butler was close in coverage, but could not stop two touchdown passes up the left sideline to receiver Corey Davis.  Butler was also trailing on overthrown pass deep down field in the 2nd quarter.  Fellow starter Stephon Gilmore knocked the ball out of Corey Davis’ hands on an out pattern in the 1st quarter, and then the cornerback broke up a third-and-14 attempt to Davis in the 2nd. 

 

Midway through the 2nd quarter, third corner Eric Rowe tackled receiver Taywan Taylor on a third down crossing route, short of the first.  Near the end of the quarter, Rowe made a terrific open field tackle on tight end Jonnu Smith in the right flat.  Per ESPN Boston, Rowe played 78% of the defensive snaps because the team was in nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six DBs) defense most of the night.

 

… And one comment about the AFC Championship.


Since the NFL adopted the current playoff structure in 2002, only two #3 seeds – as the Jacksonville Jaguars are this season – have advanced to the Super Bowl from the Conference Championship game:  the Carolina Panther in 2003 and the Indianapolis Colts in 2006.  On the other hand, #1 seeds – like the Patriots are this season – have advanced to the Super Bowl 16 times on 20 Conference Championship appearances (80%).

 

If the Patriots make it to Super Bowl LII (52), they will need to survive one of the best defenses in the NFL.  Jacksonville is #1 against the pass (opponent QB rating of 68.5) and #2 in points allowed (16.8 per game).  Media observers have noted that the Jaguars play a lot of three-high, man defense – similar to the Seattle Seahawks.  It’s hard not to think back to Super Bowl XLIX (49), as the Patriots beat the Seahawks with a high volume of short, lateral (east-west) passing routes and passes into the flat to running backs. 

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