The key backstory here was the return of former player Mike Vrabel to Foxborough as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, a franchise which has done much to follow the Patriot Way, including the hiring of ex-New England personnel man Jon Robinson as general manager. Bill Belichick’s ex-players have had a number of successes against him as coaches themselves. Could the former Patriots linebacker, Vrabel, continue that into the postseason?
Much will be made of the lack of juice to the Patriots passing attack in this game, and Tom Brady certainly didn’t look like the G.O.A.T against the Titans defence. A number of passes were just off in terms of accuracy, or resulted in incompletions due to the quarterback and receiver not being on the same page. There was a notable instance where Brady seemed frustrated with rookie wideout N’Keal Harry on a failed connection, not for the first time this season.
The Patriots relied heavily on their stable of running backs, which has provided them with success on previous trips to the postseason. Whether it was screen passes to Rex Burkhead, checkdowns to James White or inside runs by Sony Michel, New England found some success against the Titans defence when Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turned away from their wideouts. The reigning champions’ opening touchdown of the game came on a running play, though from the more unexpected contribution of Julian Edelman.
Regardless though, the Patriots weren’t able to move the ball on offense as freely as fans at Gillette Stadium have come to expect. Retooling the passing attack, with or without Brady and/or McDaniels, will be a key focus for Bill Belichick this offseason.
Belichick, who is renowned for making in game decisions to transform the outcome of a contest, clearly manoeuvred his defence in the second half to key in on bruising Titans running back Derrick Henry. It appeared to be successful at first, limiting the big gains the ex-Alabama back had been ripping off in the first half, and putting the ball into quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s hands versus the Patriots strength on defence: their secondary. The most tangible result of this was Duron Harmon’s interception of Tannehill at the start of the fourth quarter.
This promises to be an offseason of turnover and change in New England, unlike anything fans have seen for a long time. Brady’s contact is up and his future is the cause of much speculation, from whether he will retire as to whether the unthinkable could happen: that he leaves the Patriots. McDaniels may decide the time is right to take the leap into a second head coaching position as Brady clearly seems to be in decline as a passer. On top of that, key executive Nick Caserio’s contract is up and he has been the subject of much interest from the Texans, amongst other franchises.