Patriots advance to seventh-straight AFC title game

The New England Patriots scored five consecutive touchdowns from the start of the second quarter through the early fourth, cruising to a 35-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Here’s what we learned in Saturday night’s AFC clash:

1. Responding to Marcus Mariota‘s perfectly orchestrated 95-yard scoring drive late in the first quarter, the Patriots took control of the game with a quick-strike offense that exhausted the Titans‘ defensive line while generating a trio of second-quarter touchdowns. Play-caller Josh McDaniels adjusted his aerial attack, ditching deep and intermediate throws in favor of a return to the uptempo, short-passing scheme of years past. Dick LeBeau’s defense was forced to pick its poison, paying for the early containment of Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks in conceding death by a dozen paper cuts from Dion Lewis, James White and Danny Amendola. Tom Brady shrugged off a slow start to lead the offense’s most impressive all-around performance in at least three months, overtaking Brett Favre as the oldest quarterback ever to win a postseason game.

2. An outclassed underdog such as the Titans must play a nearly perfect game to beat the powerhouse Patriots in New England. After hanging tough for one quarter, Mike Mularkey’s squad was undone by a mistake-prone, one-dimensional offense, a lack of playmakers on defense, bad breaks on penalties and glaring deficiencies in play-calling and clock management. Credit Matt Patricia’s bend-but-don’t-break defense for shutting Mariota down for the final three quarters, registering a season-high eight sacks. The Patriots‘ coaching stability and experience in big games shined through. It will be interesting to see if that precision execution changes next year with McDaniels and Patricia in high demand to fill head coaching vacancies.

3. So much for Brady’s so-called slump to close out the regular season. While the MVP favorite’s production tailed off in December, that troublesome stretch also featured exquisite ball placement and big-time throws in a comeback victory over the Steelers. In the other three games, beginning with the Dolphins‘ unlikely Week 14 dominance, it was impossible to untangle Brady’s own Achilles injury, the absences of key receivers and running backs and the deleterious effects of bone-chilling weather on the passing game. Removed from the injury report this week, Brady showed early-season form with improvisational plays, highlighted by a backfoot floater to Danny Amendola, converting a red-zone third down early in the fourth quarter. He extended his own postseason record with a 13th 300-yard game, generating a 102.5 passing rating on 53 attempts. Brady will now compete in his seventh-consecutive conference championship game and 12th overall, not only more than all but three NFL franchises (Steelers, 49ers, Cowboys) but also more than quarterbacks Peyton Manning and John Elway combined.

4. Dion Lewis is a star. An afterthought in September, Lewis emerged as one of the NFL’s most effective backs down the stretch, finishing second only to MVP candidate Todd Gurley with 510 rushing yards from Week 12 through the end of the regular season season. An unbelievably elusive jitterbug prior to his 2015 ACL injury, Lewis has refashioned himself as a chain-moving workhorse. Failing to top 20 touches in any of his 52 career games entering late December, Lewis has pulled off the feat in three consecutive contests for an average of 142.3 yards since Christmas Eve.

5. Two unsung heroes for New England: James White and Danny Amendola. White picked up where he left off in Super Bowl LI, scoring a pair of second-quarter touchdowns to give the Pats a lead they would never relinquish. White has reached pay dirt five times in his last two postseason games. Amendola notched a season-high 11 receptions for 112 yards, converting six third downs while pulling off a convincing Julian Edelman impersonation.

6. Can Mularkey count on returning after last week’s vote of confidence from ownership? Saturday’s performance won’t help. After speaking with a couple of sources inside the Titans‘ building, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported before the game that Mularkey’s coaching staff remains skeptical of the notion that they are safe for the 2018 season. Might general manager Jon Robinson, a former Patriots executive, attempt to reunite with McDaniels?

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