Why is it that every time the New England Patriots lose a football game the NFL world wants to overreact the next Monday with a “sky is falling” narrative and ready to write the end of the Brady/Belichick era. Before I dive into their performance or lack thereof yesterday in Nashville, let me just set the record straight by saying all things considered with how they started the season, the adversity they have battled through and level of competition faced, the Patriots heading into their bye at 7-3 with a comfortable division lead is right where everyone expected them to be. Despite three ugly road losses, they have tremendous home wins over some game competition such as the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers.
The Tennessee Titans have themselves a franchise altering head coach in Mike Vrabel. The former All-Pro linebacker in New England just gave his old coach the business while showing the entire football world that the Titans are going to hit you in the mouth and keep on going all game long. Vrabel had his team motivated all week leading up to the game showing film of the AFC Divisional Round massacre last January in Foxboro where the Titans were quickly dispatched. They came out fired up from the jump and beatdown the Patriots in front of a home crowd that was flooded with New Englanders making the destination trip south.
From the long opening kick-off drive with an early score from Marcus Mariota in just the second opening drive touchdown all season, the Titans were ready for the battle. The Titans played a clean, hard game not turning the football over or committing too many penalties and had the perfect gameplan to beat the Patriots who were without a massive offensive weapon in Rob Gronkowski. Vrabel’s boys put the pressure on Tom Brady all game long making it a nightmare afternoon for the 41-year-old Quarterback. The Patriots have dealt with a rotating door on the offensive line with injuries up front piling up, and the Titans were like a shark smelling blood in the water. Vrabel trusted his outside guys to lock down while the front seven got after it, and he was rewarded with a stoic performance on the defensive side of the ball. Even when Brady wasn’t getting hit, he was feeling the pressure and couldn’t pull off the throws and plays we see from the greatest to ever play the position week-in and week-out.
Vrabel has seen to many teams get complacent against the Patriots with a lead and it come back to bite them. That’s why even late in the second half with the game in control, he continued to pound it down the Patriots throat with a heavy dose of the running game and Derrick Henry, the big former Alabama product. The added motivation of sticking it to their former team was there from guys like Dion Lewis, Malcolm Buter & Logan Ryan, but from snap to whistle the Titans played their game and controlled it throughout. When Kenny Vaccaro lit up James White early on, you knew the Patriots were in store for a massive battle and test.
Another thing with Vrabel, rather than pounding his chest all game with the performance his team was putting up, you saw a calm and collected coach who would go over to his defensive players and talk with them very casually about what he’s seeing out there and where they can improve. It was something you rarely see in the NFL, but Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels were out-coached by their former disciple. Credit former New England personnel man Jon Robinson as well for constructing this roster that is now 5-4 and on the cusp of a playoff berth in the AFC, but he finally has a coach he can turn to in a big spot to fire his team up after suffering through Mike Mularkey who ownership had put in place for him following the firing of Ken Wisenhunt.
The Patriots are going to be fine. They have a bye week to rest up and get healthy before they travel to Metlife to take on the Jets, whom they still have two games remaining against and still have games against the Bills and Dolphins. They do have two regular season games you can circle in a home date with the Vikings and a game in Pittsburgh, but the Patriots will be no worse than 12-4 this season with a first round bye.
The takeaway from this game is more about the staying power of the Titans. Marcus Mariota silenced the critics and proved he can win a big game and Mike Vrabel just showed the rest of the league why the Titans hired him to run their football team despite being just a few years removed from playing and only one year as a coordinator. “This can be a lesson. On Wednesday we worked, and Thursday you build up. And I felt like as we worked at the end of the week things got progressively better with our preparation and our understanding as a team, and as special teams, defense and offense. So maybe because it’s the Patriots. I don’t know. But hopefully we can learn from this,” Vrabel said in his post game press conference.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank