Titans in way of Patriots' 7th straight berth in AFC title game
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Two things, among many, have been consistent for the Patriots the past decade: Tom Brady at quarterback and New England in the AFC championship game.
Brady will try to lead his team to its seventh straight conference title game Saturday when it hosts the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
It has been a challenging week off the field for the Patriots after reports of turmoil involving Brady, coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. But Brady said he never has doubted his team's ability to compartmentalize potential distractions.
“I think we have a job to do, and we know what our job is and that's to go out and play football at a high level and play well,” he said. “Nothing really should get in the way of that.”
Tennessee hasn't been to a conference championship game since the 2002 season but has been invigorated coming off its first playoff win in 14 years.
The Titans enter as 13-point underdog, but linebacker Derrick Morgan said it's a role they happily embrace .
“Nobody respects us. Nobody really expects a lot from us. That's fine,” he said. “We haven't been a very successful team in the last 10 years. So it's easy for people to overlook us. So we've got to take care of business and start winning games like this to get the respect that we desire.”
To get it, they'll have to stop a quarterback who has been nearly unbeatable in this round of the postseason.
Brady is 11-2 in 13 divisional-round games since 2002 , passing for 3,700 yards and 28 touchdowns.
He also has a 6-1 career record against the Titans with 13 touchdowns and one interception.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was mostly unflappable in leading his team back from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat Kansas City — the largest comeback on the road in the Super Bowl era.
But since 2001, quarterbacks making their first or second career playoff start are 0-7 against New England.
“When it comes down to it, it's all about us,” Mariota said. “I think that's kind of been the mindset through this entire season. Ups and downs come and go, you just want to try and make the most of this opportunity.”
Mariota, the 2014 Heisman winner, and Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman winner, combined to turn in the best rushing performance in franchise history in the wild-card round. Henry ran for a career-high 156 yards, and Mariota added 46 yards. Henry will be starting his third straight game with DeMarco Murray already out (right knee).
There is a huge disparity in playoff experience when it comes to players. But Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau — a longtime Steelers assistant — has an NFL-record 45 consecutive seasons as a coach, two more than Belichick. Yet, with Belichick as head coach, he and LeBeau have faced off in the playoffs only once: the 2004 AFC championship game that New England won in Pittsburgh, 41-27.
The respect between the two is mutual.
“Not very many coaches have the record coach Belichick's gotten. In fact, he's probably closing in on the best ever,” LeBeau said.
Said Belichick: “Coach LeBeau is as good as there is, as good a defensive coach as there is.”