FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Tennessee Titans talked all week about how they wanted an opportunity to show they could hang with the AFC elite. On Saturday night, we learned they aren’t there yet.
The New England Patriots were the better team in every department — coaching, offense and defense — in their 35-14 win. Tennessee’s winning its first playoff game since the 2003 season was a good takeaway from the season, but there still remains a sizable gap between it and the AFC elite. The Titans might not be as close to being true contenders as they had hoped.
“Hopefully, people use this as motivation,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Yeah, it’s nice to get in the playoffs, but you don’t play to just get in, especially coming in the divisional playoff and losing the way we did.”
New England shut down Tennessee after the Titans scored the first touchdown of the game. Tom Brady was vintage, picking apart the holes in the Titans’ defense. A front seven that needed to step up and make Brady uncomfortable was extremely disappointing, barely touching him and failing to register a sack.
On a day when several Titans needed to play their best football ever to pull an upset, none of them — outside of rookie Corey Davis, who scored his first two career touchdowns — played particularly well. The final result was a club that was outclassed by the Patriots.
It’s a bittersweet end to the season for the Titans. They made playoff progress, but there is an apparent need for change in offensive scheme if this team ever hopes to be a championship contender.
“As an offense, I’ll be the first one to say that we underachieved this year,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “To make it this far, that’s extremely promising, but we can’t do that again in the 2018 season. We have the firepower to do it. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”
The Titans believed Mariota would give them a chance to shock the world, but his teammates and coaches didn’t do a ton to help him out. Plus, Mariota lacked the juice he displayed last week in Kansas City — during the Titans’ wild-card win over the Chiefs — to make splash plays.
Rookie wideout Taywan Taylor dropped two passes that could have led to points and momentum to end the first half. Coach Mike Mularkey completely botched the clock management at the end of the first half, costing the Titans potential points.
Once seen as the Titans’ biggest strength, Tennessee’s offensive line let the team down on Saturday — and too many times throughout the season. Mariota was sacked a career-high eight times at Gillette Stadium. Yes, losing tackle Jack Conklin to injury against the Pats hurt, but that sack total is unacceptable for this bunch. It’s a group that will need to be upgraded in the offseason.
Mularkey had galvanized the Titans late in the season, but he and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie also must be held responsible for the team’s offensive struggles. These issues have been apparent all season, and they hit with a major thud Saturday night. Tennessee had just 267 total yards of offense, with only 99 coming after halftime and 80 of those coming in a garbage-time final touchdown drive.
Derrick Henry looked a lot more like the tiptoeing running back we saw in Week 17 versus the Jacksonville Jaguars than the downhill bruiser who tantalized the NFL after rushing for 156 yards against the Chiefs. He finished with 12 carries for 28 yards, which was nine yards less than Mariota’s rushing total. That won’t cut it going forward. The Patriots schemed to take Henry away, and it worked.
Just about everything New England did Saturday worked, with little counter from Tennessee.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels outschemed Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau by slowly chipping away at the Titans’ pass defense with a combination of Dion Lewis and James White on screens and sweeps, Rob Gronkowski rummaging through the middle and Danny Amendola taking advantage of open shallow zones.
Yes, the Titans were victims of one poor call and another shaky-at-best call by the officials during the first half. That wasn’t the reason they got beat, however. This blowout loss was because they aren’t yet in the Patriots’ league.
“We have a lot of areas to improve,” Mariota said. “Throughout this entire season, we didn’t play a complete game of football.”
Next Sunday night, we’ll likely watch New England host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game for second consecutive season. The Titans must realize that status quo won’t lift them to break up that power duo. The gap is bigger than the Titans might have hoped, but it’s not too large to where it can’t eventually close.