This clobbering by the Titans came out of nowhere
Thirty-four thoughts on the Titans’ 34-10 win over the Patriots Sunday:
1. The record shows that Brian Hoyer came in to relieve Tom Brady at quarterback with 7 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the Patriots’ matchup with the Tennessee Titans. If a prescient someone had told you before the game that that would happen, I imagine there would be two immediate reactions: 1) The Patriots, winners of six straight, must have smoked the 4-4 Titans; 2) Bill Belichick must have finally and thankfully changed his philosophy on pulling Brady with a big lead when the game wasn’t yet mathematically clinched.
2. Yeah, not quite how it went. Mike Vrabel’s Titans clobbered the Patriots from the get-go, returning the opening kickoff 58 yards, taking a 17-3 lead in the first quarter, pummeling Brady at will throughout, and leaving absolutely no room for suspense in a 34-10 victory. The Patriots are now 7-3 — but 2-3 on the road — and head into their bye week hobbling and carrying one of their ugliest losses in years on their shoulders.
3. Ian Eagle, who called the game for CBS, noted in the fourth quarter that the Patriots had gone six straight possessions without scoring for the first time since a December 2015 loss to the Eagles. This game was reminiscent of that one in some ways — the mistake-prone Patriots gave up 35 straight points in that loss, the highlight of Chip Kelly’s time with the Eagles. But this was worse in a couple of ways — the Patriots built a 14-0 lead in that one, and they showed fight at the end then, rallying to cut the lead to 35-28 before succumbing. Sunday’s loss was just ugly.
4. Every time Brady plays poorly, it’s going to be a talk-show referendum on whether he’s finally falling off that cliff at age 41. As insufferable as it is, especially with two weeks before their next game, I get why it happens — he’s trying to succeed at an age in which virtually every other quarterback in history could not, and he does not look like his usual self right now. Brady was bad Sunday, by his standards and those of many far lesser quarterbacks. There’s no way around it.
5. Brady finished 21 of 41 for 254 yards, without a touchdown pass. He was under siege (sacked three times) and well aware of it, and he threw more what-was-that? passes than I can recall seeing. I’m sure some of that was on his receivers. Josh Gordon had four catches for 81 yards . . . but he was targeted 12 times, and whenever they failed to connect, it was tough to tell whether the relative newcomer was in the wrong spot or Brady made a bad throw. In the past, you would have assumed it was on the receiver. It was hard to tell Sunday.
6. The Patriots took their lumps during the game, most alarmingly when Julian Edelman limped toward the locker room in the fourth quarter with an apparent foot or ankle injury. Edelman is the one Patriots receiver who can be called an above-average route runner at this point, and he had his second straight excellent game Sunday, with nine catches for 104 yards, plus the completion to Brady. I’m not putting too much long-term stock in this loss — again, they’d won six in a row coming into it — but if Edelman is out for any length of time, all bets are off.
7. Mike Vrabel’s Titans played the way we expect the Patriots to — with creative and versatile offense, a big play or two from special teams, and a defense that knows how to keep points off the scoreboard. The reaction, after frustration, should be respect. Vrabel is a legendary Patriot, and one who has firsthand knowledge on what it takes to annoy Brady. It is odd that the Patriots have been hammered by the Titans and Lions, two teams with deep associations to the franchise. But this just looks like a terrific coaching job by someone who is going to continue ascending in the profession. Hope he comes back here someday.
8. Nothing but respect here for Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, Logan Ryan, and Josh Kline, the ex-Patriots of note on the Titans’ roster. They were all admirable players here (despite the strange ending for Butler), and they should be remembered well. Of all of them, Ryan probably had the biggest impact Sunday, with a sack of Brady and a fourth-down breakup of a pass.
9. Surprised to see that Lewis had just 57 yards on 20 carries — he seemed effective despite taking a couple of big hits, including one in the first half from Dont’a Hightower in the backfield.
10. The Patriots hadn’t lost to the Titans since 2002, when Steve McNair was their quarterback, Brady was in his first full season as a starter, and Vrabel was in his second season as one of the Patriots’ defensive stalwarts. I bet they don’t miss Jeff Fisher in Tennessee.
11. The Patriots dipped into the bag of tricks with a little more than 11 minutes left, with Edelman taking a handoff from Sony Michel on a reverse and throwing a jump pass to Brady. Brady caught it this time — I’m sorry, the flashback to the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles is irresistible here — but stumbled and came up a yard short of the first down.
12. The Patriots used a couple of trick plays against the Packers last week as well. The Patriots are traditionally effective with them, especially when they need a big play in a big moment. But I’m all set going forward with any trickery that involves the slow 41-year-old quarterback running a pass route.
13. On their next possession — with 10 minutes left and a 17-point lead — the Titans ran a very similar play, with Darius Jennings completing a pass to quarterback Marcus Mariota after taking a handoff from Lewis. I’m not sure if Vrabel and the Titans were trying to prove a point or rubbing it in a little there, but the Patriots would be well-served going forward by interpreting it that way.
14. The most impressive Titan? Probably receiver Corey Davis, who had seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown while winning most of his battles with Stephon Gilmore. Mariota wasn’t especially impressive, finishing 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 TDs, with another 21 yards on the ground and 21 more receiving.
15. Midway through the third quarter, the stats showed that Brady had been sacked three times and hit three more. That seemed a low tally — it seemed he was taking three hits, minimum, on every possession. The Titans seemed to have a good read on where he would go under pressure, too — at the end of the first half, he stepped up right into a delayed blitz by Ryan.
16. Some of the issues with pressure were justifiable. Trent Brown was ill, and left for the locker room in the third quarter with a back injury. Shaq Mason missed his second straight game. The Patriots already were thin at tight end when Dwayne Allen hobbled off in the third quarter.
17. But it didn’t seem as if the Patriots did much to counter it. James White, the outlet of all outlets, had just five catches on eight targets for 31 yards, along with one carry for minus-5 yards. White should get 12 to 15 touches every game.
18. The biggest hold-your-breath hit on Brady came in the third quarter when Titans lineman Darius Kilgo — who never played a game for the Patriots but was cut three times in 2016-17 — drilled Brady low just as he was unleashing a throw. Brady toppled sideways, and took his time getting up, but he eventually gave us reason to exhale.
19. For a moment, it looked as if the Patriots were going to erase the Titans’ early two-touchdown lead with relative ease. James Develin’s touchdown cut it to 17-10, and after a Titans three-and-out, the Patriots got the ball at their 30. Brady immediately hit Edelman for 30 yards. Progress!
20. And then, progress stalled. The Patriots’ biggest play on the rest of the drive was a 5-yard offside penalty on Jurrell Casey, and the drive ended with a missed field goal attempt from 52 yards by Stephen Gostkowski.
21. Gostkowski had hit from that distance earlier in the game, but he hooked this one. I couldn’t remember his last miss off the top of my head, but he did have a miss from 42 yards two weeks ago against the Bills. Sunday’s miss was just his third of the season, the other coming in Week 2 against the Jaguars.
22. This is not a second guess, and I imagine many of you were with me in the first place: I don’t get why the Patriots didn’t have Gostkowski attempt a field goal from 63 yards at the end of the first half. His 52-yard make earlier wouldn’t have been good from a much greater distance, but we know he has the leg to at least have a decent shot at it.
23. Gordon is an enigma. A really skilled talent, and one who has done well to learn as much of the offense as fast as he has. But man, you don’t know what you’re going to get from play to play. He had a 44-yard catch on the Patriots’ first possession — he got a linebacker in coverage somehow — but two more on the drive slipped through his hands.
24. Brian Orakpo has to be the most obscure player ever to have a national ad campaign, right? Wonder if he still plays chess with the Geico cavemen.
25. Not an ideal start for Gilmore, who has arguably been the Patriots’ best defensive player this season. Davis beat him on that first play from scrimmage, then got him later in the quarter for a 23-yard touchdown catch. Gilmore also was in coverage on a 16-yard Davis catch in the first quarter.
26. Hard to fault Gilmore on a couple of big plays for the Titans, though, even though he was in the neighborhood. Davis’s touchdown catch came on a perfect rainbow from Mariota. I’m not sure ’79 Mike Haynes makes the play on that one. The cornerback life isn’t always an easy one on Sundays.
27. Gilmore was flagged for pass interference on Davis’s touchdown. He also got flagged on a throw over the middle to Davis, and it was pass interference, but only because Mariota threw the ball behind the cutting receiver and Gilmore ran into him when he slowed. Looked like quality coverage otherwise.
28. Sony Michel didn’t get a ton of action (11 carries, 31 yards) in his first game since suffering a knee injury Oct. 21 against the Bears. But he looked pretty good at times, most notably on a hard-charging 5-yard gain on second and 3 with 1:25 left in the first quarter.
29. That helped set the stage for the Patriots’ first touchdown, the run part of a 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard Develin touchdown run. (OK, it was more of a plow that a run.)
30. The Titans had stopped Brady on a third-and-1 sneak — gee, you think Vrabel is familiar with that play? — but White picked up 11 yards on a fourth-and-2 catch from the Titans’ 12. Again: When in doubt, throw to White.
31. The White catch was set up in part by a fake reverse to Cordarrelle Patterson, which seemed to stall the Titans defenders’ reaction times just enough. That counts as intangible value, right?
32. Don’t recall hearing Butler’s name more than once or twice during the game, most notably when CBS’s Dan Fouts apparently forgot he was now with the Titans and noted he was the slot corner Sunday, with Jason McCourty and Gilmore getting the start. Whoops.
33. Looked like Patriots fans traveled well for this one. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for the team.
34. Eh, at least they’re not the Jets.