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Sunday NFL Thoughts: New faces keep the Patriots winning tradition alive

Also, the Patriots coaches put on a masterclass for the Titans.

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

1. The New England Patriots are heading to their seventh-straight AFC Championship game. That, quite simply, is astounding. They’ve been in the final four seven straight years.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have reached the postseason four years in a row, the second-longest streak in the NFL (behind the Patriots nine-year streak). To repeat: the second-longest playoff streak is four years. The Patriots have reached the conference title game three years in a row more than the Steelers have made the postseason.

In a league built for parity, the Patriots continue to break the model. They have an outstanding chance at returning to yet another Super Bowl if they can play their conference title game with the same energy and production as their divisional round game.

2. How about some strong performances on defense by new members of the New England Patriots? Rookies Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler combined for three sacks. Midyear additions Marquis Flowers and Ricky Jean Francois combined for two sacks. Practice squad yo-yo Geneo Grissom had two sacks of his own.

Add in Stephon Gilmore’s outstanding night in coverage where he did not allow a single reception and Lawrence Guy’s typically stout run defense, and you have a complete defensive performance by a bunch of players that weren’t a part of the Patriots run at Super Bowl LI. But it’s these players that emerge when the spotlight is on and they make all the difference.

Marquis Flowers makes plays every time he’s on the field. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots reached an extension for 2018 and tried to give him an expanded role, just like how they handled Kyle Van Noy’s role and development.

3. The Patriots also executed their run defense to perfection. They used the bear front early, which essentially involves five defensive linemen, with Trey Flowers and James Harrison on the edge and Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, and Ricky Jean Francois in the middle.

Derrick Henry, who gained 156 rushing yards against the Kansas City Chiefs, gained a mere 28 against the Patriots with 24 of them coming in the first half. Game script is super important.

New England elected to receive the opening kickoff because they wanted to build an early lead to remove Henry from the equation. In Bill Belichick’s mind, if the Patriots have an early lead, then Marcus Mariota would have to throw the ball to his less talented receivers, while his best weapon- Henry- would not be as valuable since they wouldn’t run the ball.

It might have taken a few drives for the Patriots to take the lead, but that’s exactly what happened. The Patriots erased Henry from the game and forced Mariota to try and extend drives with receivers that couldn’t get open- hence the drive-crushing number of sacks by New England.

4. That plan required the offense to contribute, too, and they certainly did. Once they figured out how Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau wanted to cover the Patriots on the first couple drives- tight press coverage- they were able to make the necessary adjustments to get players open.

The Patriots offense changes based on the coverages they face. If teams play press, New England wants to take deep home run shots. If they dedicate two safeties to taking away the deep pass, they’ll look to the shorter part of the field. But when the Titans did both, that meant the Patriots had to make another adjustment: lots and lots of screens and opportunities for the slot receiver.

The screen passes took advantage of how the second level of the Titans defense was not in position to defend the running back as a receiver, so Dion Lewis and James White combined for 108 receiving yards and a receiving touchdown. They also used simple misdirection plays to get Danny Amendola isolated one-on-one with a linebacker or Logan Ryan. Amendola clearly won that match-up with 112 receiving yards.

If Amendola can bring this level of production every week this postseason, then the New England offense is unstoppable. The Titans basically double-teamed both Brandin Cooks and Rob Gronkowski for as much of the game as they could, but that left Danny Amendola and the running backs in favorable match-ups. Other teams will realize they have to switch up their double-coverages on a snap-by-snap basis or else Brady will just find the open receiver every time.

5. It’s pretty obvious why the Patriots coaches are highly sought after for the current head coaching vacancies. Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia coached circles around the Titans. If Mike Mularkey can coach a playoff team, then McDaniels and Patricia most definitely deserve a chance of their own to reach the postseason.

6. On a non-Titans note, the Patriots trio of Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady are going to meet after the season ends to iron out any and all of their issues.

I think they’ll be happy to sort all of these “problems” out with another Super Bowl ring on their fingers.