The most jarring thing about the Tennessee Titans’ approach on Saturday night is that they didn’t fear the New England Patriots.
The Titans grabbed a game plan from 1958 and went to work. They just handed Derrick Henry the ball over and over. There were no tricks. Heck, there was barely any passing.
The Titans knew they didn’t need to score much to win. Imagine saying that through the majority of the Tom Brady era. But they were right. The Titans, who posted 76 yards passing and didn’t score on offense after halftime, rode an enormous game by Henry to knock off the Patriots 20-13 in a wild-card playoff game. Tennessee played the second half like it didn’t even need to score, because the Titans had little concern the Patriots were going to score again. The Titans move on to face the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots go into what could be an earth-moving offseason. Brady is a free agent. The Patriots won’t be a part of the playoffs in the divisional round for the first time in 10 seasons. The way the Patriots beat so many opponents in Foxborough long before kickoff, because teams knew they had no realistic chance to beat the imposing dynasty, was nowhere to be found.
Titans weren’t worried about Patriots scoring
The most telling moment of the Titans’ mindset might have come without about five minutes left.
The Titans had a fourth-and-4 at the New England 35. They led 14-13. In most years, teams wouldn’t think a one-point lead is enough against Brady and the Patriots. You’d need every point and then still hold on for dear life as the Patriots eventually moved downfield for a score.
But the Titans punted. It was a bad call, but one that showed how little regard the Titans had for the Patriots’ offense. They weren’t scared of Brady. They assumed 14-13 would be the final score. At that point Ryan Tannehill had a passing line of 7-of-14 for 61 yards. The Titans assumed that would be enough to beat Brady and the Patriots in a playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Let that sink in.
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota does a television interview following a practice at NFL football training camp Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota warms up before an NFL football preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta. Tennessee rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota finally is ready for his home debut this preseason. It won't be easy against the St. Louis defense in a nationally televised game Sunday night, Aug. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015, file photoTennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) leads his teammates on to the field before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla. Mariota was magnificent in outdueling fellow Heisman Trophy owner Jameis Winston in the Titans' rout of the Buccaneers last Sunday. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2015, file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) throws a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano during the second half of an NFL football game, in Cleveland. Mariota has 13 touchdown passes in only six games (he missed two because of a knee injury), putting him on pace to beat Peyton Manning’s rookie record of 26 touchdown passes set for Indianapolis in 1998. (AP Photo/David Richard, File)
Tennessee Titans injured quarterback Marcus Mariota watches from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) throws a pass before an NFL football game Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) runs against the Houston Texans during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) tosses the ball to an official after being sacked for a 10-yard loss by the Indianapolis Colts in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota waves to fans as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans won 36-22. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016, file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes against the Green Bay Packers in the first half of an NFL football game, in Nashville, Tenn. Mariota has been voted the 2016 Polynesian Pro Football Player of the Year after leading the Titans to their first winning record since 2011 in his second season. (AP Photo/James Kenney, File)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) fumbles the ball for a turnover during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota leaves the field on a cart after he was injured during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) leaps over Chicago Bears inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (44) in the first half of an NFL football preseason game Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) falls just short of the goal line as he dives between Cincinnati Bengals defenders Adam Jones (24) and Michael Johnson (90) in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, and Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota speak at midfield after an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota throws before an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) leaves the field after the Titans beat the New England Patriots in an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. The Titans won 34-10. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
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The Patriots’ drive started with 4:44 left. The Patriots moved the ball a bit from their own 9-yard line, and for a moment it felt like the start of another classic New England game-winning drive. Then the drive stalled and New England punted. There was simply no punch to the offense. The next time the Patriots got the ball back was with 15 seconds with no timeouts left at their own 1-yard line, and there was no miracle to save them. With nine seconds left, Logan Ryan caught an interception on a deflected pass and scored the final points.
Derrick Henry has a massive game
Perhaps the way to take away Bill Belichick’s coaching advantage is to run the most basic game plan you’ll find in the NFL in this era.
You can basically ignore the passing game when Henry is your back. The NFL’s rushing champion, at 247 pounds, was unstoppable. He kept pounding away at the Patriots defense. The Titans’ offensive line was very good. The Titans wanted to control the clock and the pace of the game, and Henry allowed them to do that. Henry had the most scrimmage yards for any player against the Patriots in a playoff game during the Belichick era, according to Josh Dubow of the Associated Press. Henry had 182 yards on 34 carries.
A 22-yard catch by Henry near the end of the first half put the ball on the 1-yard line, and Henry plowed in for a touchdown. That gave the Titans a 14-13 lead. Then nobody scored in the second half, until a cheap touchdown at the end. This is just not the same Patriots offense anymore. And the Titans, with former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel as their coach, were well aware of that.
There was no fear or intimidation. The Titans played a style that practically dared the Patriots to score anything at all. New England couldn’t. Maybe the Patriots’ dynasty gets reborn next season, but Saturday was a strange moment. Another team came into Foxborough, played to not lose, and didn’t.