The formula for stopping Tom Brady has actually been known for a long time. Pressure up the middle. Break up the pass attack before anything can develop. Easy to say – much harder to execute.
Over the years of the Patriot domination, one of the unspoken foundation pieces has been an elite offensive line and protection schemes focused on keeping Brady upright. In fact, perhaps the most iconic image of the New England offense might be of Brady standing in his clean pocket for six or seven seconds while he thoroughly scans the field for open receivers. The Patriots also know the formula.
Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact that the Patriot receiving corps is usually plentifully populated with very quick, very intelligent receivers who make very quick adjustments and almost always give Brady somewhere to go quickly with his throws in those infrequent occasions when he has to unload in a hurry.
And, of course, there is almost always a quality running attack that New England could turn to should they ever need to. The running game gets little notice, being overshadowed by the passing attack, but it has made significant contributions to the Patriot cause.
Last week – in their game against Green Bay (discussed here) – the Packers were actually able to sustain more pressure than usual against Brady. This game could have been much more difficult for New England, had the running game not supplied 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 rushes.
Cracks in the Foundation
Quietly, though, there has been some erosion among the foundation pieces of the Patriot dynasty. Nate Solder – underappreciated, perhaps at left tackle for the previous seven seasons – is now in New York. Shaq Mason – the highly acclaimed right guard – is out with an injury. Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola are all elsewhere. This – along with some reshuffling of the defense – has made the Patriots look fairly mortal from time-to-time this season. With their most dynamic receiver – TE Rob Gronkowski – on the shelf with back and ankle injuries for a couple of games – the Patriots would appear to be as vulnerable now as they have ever recently been.
Still, the Packers didn’t have enough pieces to stop them, and the Patriots rolled into Tennessee with a 7-2 record and just a step behind Kansas City for the top seed in the division. If this upset was to take place, few would have believed it would happen last week against the Titans. Yes, Tennessee’s defense – statistically, anyway, seemed like it might present problems. At 141 points, the Titans had surrendered the fewest points in the league, while ranking eighth in both total defense and pass defense.
But as impressive as they have been on defense, they have been that woeful on offense. Their 134 points scored were twenty-ninth in the league, and they ranked thirtieth in both passing and total offense. Yes, the Patriots might not score their customary 30 points. But it was assumed that they would score some, and that punch-less Tennessee would have to mount some kind of substantial offense to have a chance in this game.
The stunning offensive display was, perhaps, less surprising than it should have been. Yes, their numbers were bad to this point of the season. But they have also played the entire year to this point with a compromised quarterback. Over the last couple of weeks – and especially last Sunday – Marcus Mariota has shown himself mostly recovered. This notably changes the narrative, both for this game and for the playoff picture. Making throws that he couldn’t have imagined making earlier in the year, Mariota sliced the Patriot defense to the tune of 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns. His recovery combines with the continued emergence of wide receiver Corey Davis to give the Titans reason to hope that their offense could be considerably more explosive coming down the stretch. Davis finished with 7 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.
Still – even with the emergence of the passing attack – the offensive foundation in Tennessee remains the running game. Controlling the line of scrimmage from start to finish, Tennessee pounded the Patriots to the tune of 150 rushing yards on 36 rushes. Both feature back Derrick Henry and ex-Patriot Lewis finished with over 50 yards for the contest.
As stunning as the offensive performance was, it couldn’t overshadow the buzz generated by the defense as they dismantled the Patriots point-by-point.
First, they inhaled the Patriot running game. With no run gaining more than 9 yards, the Pats finished with just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 per).
Additionally, the Titans were able to fully exploit the absence of Gronkowski. With young cornerback Adoree’ Jackson contesting every pass thrown to Josh Gordon, Tennessee was able to double-team running back James White.
Then, with the relentless pressure forcing Brady to play fast the entire game – and with few available open receivers – Tom Brady finished with one of the worst games of his career. Tom finished with just 21 completions in 41 attempts (51.2%) and finished with just a 70.6 passer rating.
It was the third straight game that Brady finished with a rating under 100 and the fifth time this season – including his 65.1 rating against Detroit earlier this season. The Patriots are still 7-3 and in good shape. But not looking as invincible as in season’s past. Not yet anyway.
Two plays in particular underscored the disarray that the Titans caused in the New England offense. With 10:34 left in the third, and trailing 24-10, the Patriots faced a second and ten from their own 30. With a rare clean pocket, Brady tossed a strike 14 yards over the middle for a certain first down. Receiver Julian Edelman never looked for it. The ball hit Edelman flush in the helmet and bounced harmlessly away.
Later in the fourth, down 27-10, the Pats faced third and seven. New England had a little razzle-dazzle up its sleeve. A handoff to White running to his left became a toss back to Edelman, coming back around to the right. With linebacker Harold Landry bearing down on him, Julian jump-tossed to Brady, who had circled out of the backfield. In the sense that the defense was totally fooled, the play worked as well as could be imagined. As Brady pulled the pass in, there were no defenders within fifteen yards of him. However, as he turned up field to run, Brady’s feet tangled. He stumbled and finally went down – one yard short of the first down. Going for it on fourth-and-one, a false start moved them back, and Brady’s fourth-and-six toss to Edelman over the middle was perfectly defended by Logan Ryan.
That’s how the day was for New England.
Titans Trending Up
On the other hand, this victory brightens things considerably in Nashville. Last week when we discussed playoff situations, we noted that with a fairly soft closing schedule Tennessee needed to find a way to win one of their next three. Mission more than accomplished. Now – even should they drop their next two games (division road contests in Indianapolis and Houston), Tennessee still has a reasonable shot at a 10-6 record, which should earn them at least a wildcard spot. Remember, Baltimore still holds the tie-breaker here, so the Titans will still have to finish with a better record.
Other Shifting Playoff Situations
The NFC East continues to be a division without direction. In last week’s discussion, I championed the still underachieving Eagles as the team I expected to see hold forth. Even with a vulnerable Dallas team playing in Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Eagles still managed to lose another game in the standings. They now trail by two games. With their disappointing loss to the Cowboys, coupled with Washington’s impressive victory in Tampa Bay, I am forced to admit that Washington is looking more and more like they are the class of that division. With Carolina and Seattle in the same conference, it is unlikely that there will be a wildcard spot for the NFC East, so only the champion here is liable to go.
Saints Rolling On
While the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles all lost important games during Week Ten, the New Orleans Saints kept rolling on. Showing no let-down after their huge conquest of the Rams, the Saints steam-rolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14 (gamebook) (box score).
Much more perfect than this, an offense cannot hope to get. They converted all of their first seven third-down opportunities. They scored touchdowns the first five times they touched the ball, including going 4-4 in the red zone. They had 10 possession for the game, scoring on the first 9 (6 touchdowns and 3 field goals). Well ahead on their final possession, they settled for running off the final 4:42 of the game.
The final tally showed 244 rushing yards on 47 rushes (5.2 per), while QB Drew Brees recorded a 150.4 rating on 22 of 25 passing for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns. New Orleans is making it look very easy right now.
Watching them, though, it seems that they are starting to get a little full of themselves – especially the defense. This is curious, because the defense is the underachieving aspect of this team. While the explosive offense continues to go about its business in a professional manner, the Saints defense (23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense, and 31st in passing defense) celebrate all of their interceptions (they have only 6 on the season) by posing for pictures in the end zone.
Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.