The Patriots came into a Week 10 showdown with the Titans riding a six-game winning streak. They left Nashville with a humbling 34-10 loss that saw Tom Brady exit the game with more than seven minutes to play. Not due to injury, but rather to prevent it in a contest that was effectively over by halftime.
It was a wake-up call for New England and a statement win for a Titans team that’s vacillated from “contender” to “terrible” and back in 2018. And while it’s a disheartening loss for a Patriot team whose road to a third-straight Super Bowl appearance just got a few more potholes, it didn’t necessarily out the fatal flaws that could derail New England’s season.
Plenty went wrong for the Patriots before and during Sunday’s game that allowed a peaking Titans team to take advantage. And while Tennessee deserves a mountain of praise for making Brady look like 2016 Brock Osweiler, there are enough rough circumstances to suggest Week 10 won’t mark the beginning of the end for the Pats’ postseason hopes.
New England pretty much ran out of tight ends Sunday
The best Patriot offenses have relied heavily on big performances from the team’s tight ends. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around Sunday, New England had just one healthy tight end on its active roster — and that was Jacob Hollister.
Rob Gronkowski missed his third game in four weeks due to a combination of ankle and back injuries. Dwayne Allen, used mostly as a blocker, left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury of his own. That left Hollister, who’d played in just three games so far in 2018 and didn’t have a catch since Week 2, as the team’s over-the-middle target and extra blocker.
He was a non-factor in both phases. Hollister had just one catch on two targets (though, in his defense, his third-down drop appeared to be the function of some light interference from Kevin Byard) and was part of an offensive line that gave Brady little quarter all afternoon. Brady struggled to set his feet in what was constantly a middled pocket, getting sacked three times and hit six more.
Josh Gordon had his worst game as a Patriot
Gordon has been a useful addition to the New England offense as a field-stretching threat who propped up a decimated receiving corps early in the season. But while he opened the game with a 44-yard reception deep down the middle of the field in coverage, the rest of his day was a forgettable one.
He had a pair of drops later in that drive that turned a potential touchdown-scoring opportunity into a field goal attempt.
Later in the first half, he’d create enough separation along the sideline to create an easy first round for the Patriots, but slipped coming out of his route, allowing the ball to sail over his head and to the sideline. He finished the game with four catches and 81 yards, which is good! But he needed 12 targets to get there, which is ...bad.
Fortunately for New England, these were simple and correctable mistakes, potentially related to the dislocated finger Gordon suffered in Week 9.
Shaq Mason’s absence and an 80 percent Sony Michel doomed the New England running game
Mason has developed into one of the league’s most valuable interior linemen since being drafted by the Patriots in 2015, earning every penny of a five-year, $50 million extension in the process. But he missed Sunday’s game with a calf injury, and New England was significantly worse off as a result.
Last week, the Patriots were able to plan around his absence with a series of sweeps and tosses that ran non-tailback personnel outside the tackles. But that gadgetry wasn’t going to work a second week — the Packers adjusted to Cordarelle Patterson’s runs swimmingly in the second half of that game — forcing New England into a more traditional run plan. That meant putting pressure on rookie back Sony Michel, who’d been great for the Patriots early in the season but had missed the past two weeks due to a knee injury.
It was clear Michel wasn’t back to 100 percent, and he struggled to find space against a bulky Tennessee defensive line that won trench war after trench war against Mason replacement Ted Karras. Michel averaged just 2.8 yards per touch on 11 carries, a number that allowed the Titans to drop extra defenders back in coverage and create precious little space for Brady to find targets downfield. Couple that with Tennessee’s effective pass rush, and you’ve got the formula for a 10-point performance on the road.
Facing former Patriots personnel is the 2018 Patriots’ anathema
Matt Patricia targeted New England’s weakest points in a surprising 26-10 Lions win in Week 3. His intimate familiarity with the Patriots’ helped him shut down his former team’s understaffed receiving corps and hassle Tom Brady into one of his worst performances of the past decade — 13 of 26 passing for 133 yards and a pair of interceptions.
Mike Vrabel never coached in New England, but he did spend eight seasons there playing as a linebacker, tight end, and whatever else Bill Belichick felt he was well suited for. That gave him plenty of experience with Brady, and he used his knowledge of Brady’s weaknesses — and his team’s understaffed receiving corps — to frustrate the veteran passer into a zero-touchdown performance that saw him post an Osweiler-ian 6.2 yards per attempt.
Vrabel wasn’t the only man on the home sideline who knew the hell out of Sunday’s opponent. Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Dion Lewis all made their mark in the NFL as Patriots. On Sunday, Ryan had six tackles, one sack, and one pass defensed on fourth down against his former team. Lewis chalked up 68 total yards, albeit on an inefficient 3.1 yards per touch. Butler was a key part of the unit that stifled Brady (and later Brian Hoyer) all afternoon.
Was a matchup against the team that allowed them to leave a motivating factor on Sunday? To hear Dion Lewis tell it, yes:
Patricia and Vrabel followed similar blueprints to beat the Patriots, game plans that were no doubt influenced by their time in New England. That could be a real problem for the Pats in the postseason — but as it currently stands, the only former coach they’d be slated to see in the playoffs is Bill O’Brien, who is 0-5 against the Patriots all-time. Vrabel can still crash that party with a strong finish (and would be in the Wild Card picture if the Dolphins lose this afternoon), but beating New England in Week 10 and in the Divisional Round of the playoffs are two very different beasts.
That doesn’t mean some very real concerns didn’t bubble to the surface in Nashville. The New England secondary made Marcus Mariota look like an MVP candidate, with veteran safety Patrick Chung getting lit up for the second-straight week in the process. Brady looked like a legit 41-year-old man in stretches, failing to find the extra gear that makes him one of the game’s greatest players in the process. The running defense allowed Derrick Henry, a man who’s averaged 3.3 yards per carry and who had scored just two touchdowns in eight games, to find the end zone twice as the game’s leading rusher.
And the Pats got shellacked, which is happened kind of a lot this season:
The Patriots lost 34-10 at the Titans today, their 3rd double-digit road loss this season.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 11, 2018
That is New England's most such losses in a season since 2008, when Tom Brady played only 1 game.
The Patriots had just 3 such losses in the last 3 seasons combined. pic.twitter.com/7shY01TidE
But many the flaws that led to the Titans’ blowout win Sunday have some easy corrections, whether that means allowing some key players to get healthy or just avoiding the former Patriots who know enough about Belichick’s playcalling to exploit it. Tennessee’s emphatic victory will give New England plenty to think about and liven up the race for the AFC’s second first-round bye behind the Chiefs. Even so, it would be foolish to bury New England as a Super Bowl contender after one loss to a Titans team that was in perfect shape to exploit the Pats.