Reigning NFL Super Bowl champions the New England Patriots were a class above as they saw off the Tennessee Titans 35-14 in the divisional round.
Saturday's AFC playoff game at Gillette Stadium saw the Patriots advance to the championship game for a record seventh successive year. After the Titans grabbed an early 7-0 lead, Tom Brady and the Patriots took control and cruised to victory on home soil.
The Titans (10-8) scored late in the first quarter and had 108 yards of offence. They managed just 159 yards the rest of the way as the Patriots defence kept the Tennessee ground game that wore down the Kansas City Chiefs last week in check.
Titans running back Derrick Henry, who ran for 156 yards against the Chiefs, managed just 28 yards on 12 carries against the Patriots. The Patriots (14-3) will host either the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game next Sunday.
There were two questionable calls in the first half that went in New England's favour. The first was an offensive pass interference call on Titans receiver Eric Decker that wiped out a Tennessee first down. The Titans had to punt from their own 17-yard line and the Patriots capitalised on the short field to take a 14-7 lead on a six-yard James White run.
The second came on a Patriots punt when it appeared New England would be called for a false start. The Titans were instead penalised for inducing a false start and the five-yard penalty gave the Patriots a first down to extend the series. The Patriots capitalised and turned what would have been a three-and-out inside their own 20 into a 16-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a four-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan.
The Patriots led the NFL this season in first downs by penalties. While there is no conspiracy in place, those two calls were crucial and were the turning point of the game.
The Titans scored first as Marcus Mariota threw a perfect pass to Corey Davis, who made an incredible one-handed diving catch in the end zone to give the Titans a 7-0 lead with 1:14 remaining in the first quarter.
The touchdown capped an 11-play, 95-yard drive as Mariota used his arms and legs to convert a pair of third downs. It was all New England after that as Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dialled up the pressure on Mariota, who was sacked eight times. Mariota finished 22 of 37 for 254 yards and two touchdowns with 37 rushing yards. While the Titans could not pull off the upset — it did not help that starting right tackle Jack Conklin was forced out with a knee injury in the first half — Mariota showed promise and could have Tennessee as a perennial playoff contender.
Patriots running back James White, who scored twice on Saturday, was New England's playoff hero last season. This year, it looks like Dion Lewis will be that guy. Lewis ran for 896 yards and six touchdowns and caught 32 passes for 214 yards and three scores during the regular season. He came up with multiple big plays, finishing with 62 rushing yards on 15 carries and nine receptions for 79 yards. He caught a short Brady pass on the first play of the second quarter and bolted for what has initially ruled a 50-yard touchdown. The Patriots had to settle for a 31-yard gain, but it set up White's first touchdown as the Patriots answered Tennessee's score.
Brady finished 35 of 53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns as Danny Amendola led all players with 11 catches for 112 yards. The Patriots are now 8-0 this season when Lewis records more than 100 yards from scrimmage. As long as Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels continues to give Lewis touches, New England just might win another Super Bowl.