FOXBOROUGH, MA – When the eerie Foxborough fog lifted, it became clear that New England's reign atop the NFL was ending.
Derrick Henry ensured that with the kind of dominating playoff performance usually reserved for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
Henry rushed for 182 yards and a touchdown while Tennessee's defense stymied Brady and perhaps ended his championship-filled New England career with a 20-13 wild-card victory Saturday night.
Brady vows to be back on an NFL field next season, but his contract with the Patriots is done.
“I love the Patriots,'' the 42-year Brady said, adding about leaving the game after 20 seasons: “I would say it's pretty unlikely, hopefully unlikely. I love playing football. I don't know what it looks like moving forward.”
Doing the most moving forward Saturday night was Henry, who had a total of 184 yards rushing in two playoff games two years ago. He nearly got that against the league's top-ranked defense in boosting the Titans (10-7) into the divisional round at No. 1 seed Baltimore.
“It’s a great win against a great team in a hostile environment," Henry said on his 26th birthday. “Credit to my team. I’m just happy we were able to advance.
“We were just locked in. That was our mindset, just coming in here doing what we needed to do in all three phases, stay locked in no matter what happens in the game, and I feel like we did that.”
As that dense fog that shrouded Gillette Stadium for the first half dissipated, the Patriots, who made the last three Super Bowls and won two, stalled repeatedly with the ball. They no longer were the bullies on the block — Henry was.
As for this defeat, the Patriots' fourth as a wild card, Brady noted: “They kind of stopped us in the first half and the second half and we couldn't get the job done.''
There had been no scoring in the second half when All-Pro Brett Kern's 58-yard punt that took up 10 of the final 25 seconds rolled down at the New England 1. Brady then was picked by former Patriot Logan Ryan for a 9-yard touchdown t o finish off the Patriots (12-5), who at one point were 8-0.
The game's first three possessions wound up as three long scoring drives. A 29-yard screen pass to James White set up Nick Folk's 36-yard field goal, but Tennessee answered with a 75-yard march built around Henry. He had no role on the touchdown, Tannehill's pass to a Harvard man, tight end Anthony Firkser that made it 7-3.
Firkser is the first player from Harvard to score a playoff TD.
New England counterpunched with its own 75-yard drive, taking temporary control of the game by victimizing Tennessee's defense on the outside. The Titans looked slow trying to protect the flanks as Sony Michel broke off a 25-yard run and White had a 14-yarder.
Julian Edelman finished it with the first rushing touchdown of his 11 pro seasons, a 5-yard dash to the unprotected left side of the Tennessee D.
New England appeared primed for another touchdown after Mohamed Sanu's 14-yard punt return set up the Patriots at the Titans 47, and they steadily drove to first-and-goal at the 1.
All they got was Folk's 21-yard field goal as three runs failed. It was the 13th time the Patriots had first-and-goal at the 1 in a playoff game in the Brady era and the first time they failed to get a TD on the drive.
Tannehill led the NFL with a career-best 117.5 passer rating and by averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt. But he didn't do a whole lot Saturday night in his first postseason game: 8 of 15 for 72 yards. His awful decision to put the ball up for grabs on the first play of the fourth quarter resulted in Duron Harmon's interception.
But New England's spotty attack flopped and never revived. That has not been unusual during the second half of the schedule.
Tannehill's passing yards were the fewest for a starter since the Ravens' Joe Flacco had 34 in a wild-card win against the Patriots 10 years ago.
Tannehill now has five victories over Brady, second only to Peyton Manning's six for the most by an opposing QB since 2001, including playoffs.
Henry celebrated his birthday by getting the most rushing yards against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team in the playoffs. He set an early tone by rushing for 49 of the Titans' 75 yards on their opening touchdown drive. On the Titans' second 75-yard TD march, all Henry did was gain every yard: 22 on a screen pass and 53 rushing, including a 1-yard dive into the end zone for a 14-13 halftime lead. Those were Tennessee's first points in the final two minutes of the opening half since Week 8.
“When you can run it when the other team knows you're gonna run it, that says a lot about your running game,'' Titans coach Mike Vrabel said.
Henry led the NFL in rushing this season with 1,540 yards in 15 games, the fourth-most rushing yards in franchise history. He also ran for 16 TDs, second most in team history.
Vrabel, a star linebacker for New England who won three Super Bowl rings, is a rare member of the Belichick coaching tree to defeat the Patriots' long-time coach head to head in the playoffs. Another of those, Houston's Bill O'Brien, also did it this season — and the Texans advanced to the divisional round earlier Saturday by beating Buffalo in overtime.
“I told 'em that to win the game, you're going to have to be mentally and physically exhausted,'' Vrabel said. “You're going to get rubbed defensively. There's gonna be gadgets. They going to force you to think. ...
“We didn't hand them anything. They feast on bad football.
“I don't think our guys spend a lot of time looking at those banners.''
New England's loss in the season finale at home to Miami, which cost the Patriots a wild-card round bye, was engineered by another former Belichick assistant, Brian Flores.
NEW ENGLAND SLUMP
After winning their first eight games, the Patriots struggled mightily in the second half of the schedule. They lost four games, and with the defeat by the Titans, they fell three times at home.
Titans: Linebacker Jayon Brown hurt his shoulder in the first half.
Patriots: Safety Patrick Chung left in the first quarter with an ankle issue.
Titans: Head to Baltimore in the divisional round.
Patriots: Head home early, failing to become the second team to make four straight Super Bowls. And wondering where Brady is headed.
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