FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- At some point in every game, opponents of the New England Patriots receive the stark reminder that they have to play flawlessly, leaving no room for adverse judgments, to have a chance to beat a team that rolls through postseasons with the regularity of a metronome.
For the Titans, that realization probably arrived in the second quarter. They had held the Patriots scoreless in the first quarter and taken a seven-point lead, leaving Gillette Stadium silent with a flawless 95-yard drive capped by a pinpoint perfect touchdown pass from Marcus Mariota to Corey Davis as he sprinted for the back corner of the end zone.
In the two weeks since the Patriots last played, whispers about fissures in their foundation burst into the open, filling the vacuum created by inaction. Against that backdrop, for a minute or two, that touchdown might have started to send a frisson of nervousness through the acolytes of the Patriots empire.
Eventually that empire will crumble as they all do, and its expiration may, in fact, be as ugly as most are. But not yet. Not now. Not when the errors start to accrue for the opponents and the breaks start to go the Patriots' way and they pounce while the opponents wilt. An up-tempo drive here, an offensive pass interference call against Eric Decker there, and a very late neutral zone infraction call against the Titans on a Patriots punt and suddenly New England led by 14 going into halftime. You could practically feel, and you could certainly see, the Patriots grinding through the Titans, keeping Tom Brady clean in the pocket, getting free releases for Rob Gronkowski, sacking Marcus Mariota eight times, exerting their will on the way to a 35-14 victory.
All seemed normal for the Patriots after the victory and Brady even joked when he was asked about how much negativity has swirled around the team recently.
"Really?," he said, feigning ignorance of the criticism. "I've been around long enough; 18 years. There's been so many nice things said about me. That 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, it's just my job is to do the best I can do for us every week."
If you needed one snapshot of how futile it must sometimes feel to face the Patriots during this extraordinary era, look up a third-and-10 pass from early in the fourth quarter, in which Brady was flushed from the pocket and began an awkward amble to his right. He stopped and began to fall backwards without being hit, but heaved the ball across the field, where it dropped into Danny Amendola's arms for the first down. It was improvisation of the Michael Jordan sort, one of Amendola's 11 receptions, and Gronkowski scored a few plays later. The dynasty's demise had been forestalled for at least another week.
This has been an odd Patriots' season, with an undercurrent of uncertainty about the future that accompanied the unexpected trade of backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and a noticeable dip in Brady's play in the last five games of the regular season. But that dip has to be taken in context -- Brady was 35 of 53 for 337 yards and three touchdowns Saturday and is the expected winner of this season's most valuable player award. And the Patriots will host next Sunday's AFC Championship game against the winner of Sunday's Divisional game between the Jaguars and Steelers. Of all the Patriots' accomplishments, the most astounding may be that they have been to 12 AFC championship games in the 17 years that Brady has started for Bill Belichick and this will be the seventh straight.
"It's hard to win," Belichick said. "I think you have to give these guys a lot of credit. It's not about what other guys have or haven't done."
For Brady, it has long been clear that the games provide some kind of refuge from whatever noise exists in his world and this week has been no different.
"I think it always feels that way and I think being on the field is a great place to, you know, that's where you go prove it," Brady said. "You can talk all day about what you're going to do or what you can do. Ultimately, you've got to go out there and do it. I think just having the opportunity to go play, and I've had so many great teammates over the years and this team has done such a great job this year focusing on what we need to. When you get out there, that's the best part of the week."
Out in the bundled-up crowd Saturday night, a fan held aloft a sign: "Ya Gotta Believe," the rallying cry lifted from the lovable losing Mets. There, of course, hasn't been much reason to not believe in the Patriots for almost a decade. But Saturday seemed to provide some evidence that the future of the Patriots era is still worth believing in, too.