For a league-leading sixth time this season the Patriots offense eclipsed the 35-point mark against the Titans on Saturday night.
Offensively, the Patriots looked as dangerous as ever due in large part to a healthier group of skill players at Tom Brady and Josh McDaniels’ disposal.
First, the hero of Super Bowl LI, James White, returned for the first time since Week 15 after suffering an ankle injury in Pittsburgh.
White touched the ball eight times in his return to action and reached the end zone twice as the primary running back in the red zone for the Patriots.
Along with White, the Patriots also got wide receiver Chris Hogan back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of the second half of the season.
Hogan caught only one of his four targets, but that reception did go for a four-yard touchdown and was back to his usual self blocking in the run game as well.
Hogan’s return is great news for Tom Brady, as the Patriots were missing both his red zone presence and continuity with Brady during their stretch run.
Finally, the Patriots right tackle spot continues to be a bit of a revolving door.
Luckily for the Pats, it hasn’t mattered much to this point who is in that spot as starter Marcus Cannon (now on IR), and reserves Cam Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle has all played at a starter level when given the opportunity this season.
Waddle appeared to be ahead of Fleming on the depth chart when healthy but was injured once again on Saturday night.
Early indications are that Waddle could miss time with a knee injury meaning it could be the Cam Fleming show the rest of the way at right tackle.
There are still concerns about Fleming’s abilities in pass protection, but the 6-5, 325-pound Fleming has been an absolute mauler at times in the run game.
The playoffs are all about matchups, however, so look for teams to target Fleming in pass protection moving forward.
The most notable changes on the defensive side of the ball were all about one thing: speed.
The Patriots knew they needed to have speed on the field, especially in the front seven, to keep Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota from killing them with his legs and to swarm ball carrier Derrick Henry.
Instead of lining up big-body vs. big-body, and trying to beat the Titans at their own game, the Patriots opted to combat the Titans’ power running game by beating them to spots and swarming to the football.
The strategy worked to perfection, as the Pats sacked Mariota eight times (franchise postseason record) and Henry was held to just 24 rushing yards on 11 attempts in the first half before game script forced the Titans to move the ball through the air late.
The Patriots’ efforts to get more speed on the field started at the linebacker position.
First, the return of linebacker Kyle Van Noy came at a perfect time for the Patriots’ defense, and his impact was massive on Saturday night.
Van Noy and fellow linebacker Marquis Flowers shouldered the load at linebacker primarily covering running backs out of the backfield and spying on Mariota.
The strategy allowed the Patriots to play tight man coverage on the backend of the defense while not allowing Mariota to escape the pocket, as every time he tried either Van Noy or Flowers was there waiting for him.
Patriots fans have been calling for the team to move away from 2016 sixth round pick Elandon Roberts, who lacks the ideal athleticism to play linebacker in today’s NFL, and they did so on Saturday night as Roberts played just 20 snaps, his lowest output since Week 1 versus Kansas City.
Lastly, in his second game with the Patriots, former Steelers linebacker James Harrison logged 30 snaps playing mostly outside linebacker against the Titans.
Harrison did not record a pressure in 12 pass rush snaps but did make three tackles, including two run stops in the divisional round.
For a late-season addition, Harrison has done a fantastic job adding a shot to the arm to this Patriots’ front and has absorbed a lot of information to get up to speed in a short period.