FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Titans — and the officiating crew — played right into the hands of the Patriots in Saturday night’s 35-14 rout of Tennessee in the AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
The 14-3 Patriots, as defending Super Bowl champions, shouldn’t need such help. Not that they were turning it away or complaining.
The first questionable call that went against the Titans came in the second quarter on a third-and-4 play from the Tennessee 27-yard line. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota connected with former Jets receiver Eric Decker on a pass that appeared to give Tennessee a first down to keep the drive alive.
But Decker was called for offensive pass interference, a call that on replay looked dubious at best.
“In the judgment of the covering official, No. 87 [Decker] pushed off and created an advantage for himself that allowed him to create space to make the play,” referee Ron Torbert said after the game.
On the next play, the Titans failed to convert on third-and-14, then punter Brett Kern kicked a poor 36-yarder to give the Patriots good field position near midfield.
Six plays and 1:56 later, the Patriots took a 14-7 lead they never relinquished on a James White 6-yard scoring run.
But it was the Patriots’ next offensive possession that most exemplified how they beat teams — with help from their opponent.
The Patriots were faced with a fourth-and-5 from their own 14-yard line, when as they were about to punt, they initially were penalized for a false start that would have made it fourth-and-10 from their own 9-yard line.
But the referees reversed the call, calling it a “correction” on the field, and instead flagged Tennessee’s Brynden Trawick for a neutral-zone infraction. That gave Patriots a free first down at their own 19-yard line with 6:32 remaining in the first half.
“The line judge saw a defensive lineman [Trawick] jump onto the neutral zone, did not see the guard across from him move,” Torbert said. “The umpire saw the guard move and threw the flag for a false start, which is what we initially announced. When we got together and discussed it and pieced together that the defensive lineman across from the guard jumped in the neutral zone and caused the false start, that’s when we changed the ruling from a false start to a neutral-zone infraction.’’
You probably can guess what happened from there.
New England marched the rest of the length of the field and took a 21-7 lead on a 4-yard Tom Brady scoring pass to Chris Hogan with 1:52 remaining in the first half.
Another opponent, with an assist from the officiating crew, aiding the Patriots, and this game was effectively over before the second half began.