NASHVILLE – The Titans beat the Patriots 20-13 on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium to advance into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Here's a look at six things that stood out from the game as the team begins to turn its attention to next Saturday's playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Titans running back Derrick Henry set the tone early. Henry had runs of four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10 on the team's opening drive, while providing a sign of things to come on his 182-yard rushing night. The fact the Patriots knew the battering ram was coming made it even more impressive. Henry totaled 204 of the team's 272 yards on offense, along with a touchdown run. Henry wanted the ball on his birthday, and the Titans gave it to him again and again and again – 35 times in all (34 rushing, 1 reception). Henry's 182 rushing yards vs the Patriots set the franchise's single-game postseason record, topping Eddie George's 162 yards at Indianapolis on Jan. 16, 2000, and his rushing total was the most in an NFL playoff game since Jan. 12, 2008.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has made a career out of guiding game-winning touchdown drives, and on several occasions he had a chance to do so on Saturday night. But time and again the Titans defense stiffened up and kept the game's most clutch quarterback of all time from being a hero. The Titans shut out the Patriots in the second half, and New England didn't have a drive finish inside the Tennessee 47 in the final 30 minutes. Logan Ryan's pick-6 of Brady with nine seconds left capped off the win, but the goal-line stand in the first half – when the Titans held the Patriots to a field goal after they had a first and goal at the 1 – was a huge momentum changer. The Titans limited the Patriots to 13 total points, which tied for the lowest by the Patriots in a playoff game under head coach Bill Belichick. Brady's 59.4 passer rating was the fifth-lowest of his postseason career. Rashaan Evans, who led the Titans with 10 tackles, and safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had two tackles for a loss and a pass break-up, made multiple big plays.
Tannehill's Gut-Check Plays
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill's stat line isn't one that usually produces a win in the playoffs -- he was 8-of-15 for 72 yards in the game. In his first ever playoff game, there were a few plays he'd like to have back – his ill-advised interception, and his dropped shotgun snap. But Tannehill once again stepped up big in clutch situations. Tannehill capped off the team's first possession with a touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Firkser, but his biggest throw of the night came on a third-and-eight with 2:08 left – an 11-yard completion to tight end Antony Firkser that helped the team run the clock down. Tannehill also lowered his shoulder and earned a big first down run late on 3rd and 2.
On a night when the Patriots focused on Titans receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, and OC Arthur Smith relied on Henry, it was Firkser who had the two biggest catches of the night. With his touchdown catch, Firkser became just the sixth player from an Ivy League School – and the first from Harvard – to score a touchdown in a playoff game. Would you believe Firkser led the team in receiving yards with two catches for 23 yards?
Some Clutch Punting
There's a reason why punter Brett Kern was named first-team All-Pro, and voted to the Pro Bowl team. Kern proved his worth on Saturday night, averaging a 45.8-gross yards average and 42.0 net yard average on six punts, including a postseason career-high four punts placed inside the 20. Kern booted a 58-yard punt to the one-yard line in the final minute of play, and he pinned the Patriots on the seven-yard line with a 36-yard punt in the third quarter.
The Patriots entered the contest with a massive edge in playoff experience, and with six Lombardi Trophies. The Titans, meanwhile, had 30 players making their playoff debut, along with a head coach making his coaching debut in the playoffs as well. But on Saturday night, the Titans never flinched, and they handled the pressure when it mattered most. There was Mike Vrabel, who found a creative way to run precious seconds off the clock late on a night when he had his team ready to play. There was Tannehill with a big throw, and players across the board who didn't flinch when the tension was at its highest. The Patriots still have their trophies, but the Titans walked out of Gillette Stadium on Saturday night with a memorable win, in large part because of a gut-check effort.
The Tennessee Titans take on the New England Patriots in an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Gillette Stadium. (Photos: Donald Page)