Patriots back in AFC title game, Titans trip into offseason
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By KYLE HIGHTOWER
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots have handled every bit of adversity that has been thrown at them this season - from a string of injuries to the recent off-field firestorm created by reports of purported discord within the core of the franchise.
Now, they'll have a chance to play for yet another AFC championship.
The Patriots' 35-14 victory over the Titans in Saturday's divisional round was yet another reminder of the defending Super Bowl champion's unique ability to not only compartmentalize, but play some of their best football in the face of it.
Tom Brady chuckled when he was asked after the game about his name being mentioned in a swirl of media reports last week about alleged bickering between himself, coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft.
"Noooo," he responded sarcastically, when a reporter asked about Brady's name being mentioned in a negative light.
But Brady said it "just goes with the territory.
"I just try to be consistent, show up and do the best I can do every week for the team and regardless of whether I'm the worst quarterback in the league or the best quarterback in the league or somewhere in-between," he said.
It was Brady's 10th career postseason game with at least three TD tosses, moving him past Joe Montana for the most in NFL history. It also brought out some of the best football in his teammates.
"All the hard work we put in is for these moments," White said. "We have to make the most of these opportunities."
Marcus Mariota tossed an early touchdown pass to give the Titans an early 7-0 lead. But Tennessee faltered down the stretch as the Patriots defense swarmed the third-year quarterback and sacked him a Patriots playoff-record eight times.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey revealed after the game that Mariota suffered a strained quadriceps muscle in the first quarter. But Mariota said it was no excuse.
"Everybody plays with something," he said.
He said he walked off the field feeling "embarrassed" a week after leading his team back from 18 points down against Kansas City. But he said watching the efficiency of Brady and the Patriots was a learning experience he will take with him moving forward.
"You don't play to come and lose in the divisional playoff. You play to win the whole thing," Mariota said. "Obviously, this is the blueprint. New England's been in the playoffs consistently. We can learn a lot from them."
Brady will be making his 12th AFC championship game appearance in his 18 NFL seasons. He now has 221 career wins as a starting quarterback (regular season and playoffs), extending his NFL record. Peyton Manning is next with 200 career victories.
Gronkowski finished with six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. It was his 10th career postseason TD. He's tied with five others for third all-time. But it's the most for a tight end. Only two players in NFL history have more receiving touchdowns in the playoffs: Jerry Rice with 22 and John Stallworth with 12.
But Gronkowski said it's not something that is even registering right now.
"That's great to hear and everything, but that's not really the main goal," he said. "Maybe down the road you can look back and look at that stuff, but as of right now, what our main goal is just keep on grinding, get the win and that's what we did tonight."
The Patriots feasted on third down against the Titans' defense, going 11 of 17 in those situations.
Titans safety Kevin Byard said they allowed Brady to control the game.
"We didn't play well enough to give our offense a chance," Byard said. "We were giving up too much, especially on early downs."
He said New England's 31 first downs stood out.
"(Brady) definitely outplayed us tonight."
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Updated January 14, 2018