FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots machine rolls on.
Despite all the distractions, it was business as usual for the Patriots as they earned a return to the AFC Championship Game for the seventh consecutive season by beating the Tennessee Titans 35-14 on Saturday night at frigid Gillette Stadium.
The result came after a week in which an ESPN The Magazine report detailed friction between coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft and had each of the “big three” answering questions about it. By Tuesday morning, Belichick had felt the need to reset the agenda and said, “At this point, I’m all-in on Tennessee. I’ll answer any questions about the Titans, but that’s it.”
Belichick was all-in, and his team -- after a slower-than-desired start -- was all over the Titans on Saturday.
Distractions? What distractions?
"This time of year, there’s no such thing to me as distractions," said safety Devin McCourty, one of the team's captains. "Unless you have some issue going on with your family or something like that, there is nothing else that can distract you. I don’t care what comes out, what’s said. Our goal from the beginning of the season was to be able to play in the playoffs and try to go out there and win games in the playoffs. There’s nothing right now that can deter us from that."
"You have to keep ignoring noise on the outside," Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said postgame on NBC, "and just keep working every time you walk in the building and just keep grinding."
After falling behind 7-0 in the first quarter, the Patriots ripped off 35 points in a row, and by the start of the fourth quarter -- when Brady converted a ridiculous across-the-field, high-arcing throw to clutch receiver Danny Amendola (first career 100-yard receiving game in the playoffs) to convert a third-and-10 situation -- the bone-chilled but delirious crowd was chanting, “MVP! MVP! MVP!”
"We locked eyes early and I could tell he was thinking about it," Amendola said. "I kept running, knew I had a couple yards, and he looked back again and let it go. It ended up working out."
It was a vintage Brady performance, as the 40-year-old decisively answered the question as to whether his December performance -- which wasn’t up to his usual high standards -- was perhaps a sign of him finally starting to show his age.
Brady finished 35-of-53 for 337 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. It marked his 10th career postseason game with three touchdown passes, which broke a tie with his boyhood idol, Joe Montana, for the most in NFL history. Brady also extended his own playoff record for 300-yard passing games, with his 13th.
Upping the tempo in the second quarter ultimately was the change that turned the game around, as Brady and the Patriots pounced on the Titans with a fast-paced attack. The fire and passion with which the quarterback played was particularly evident late in the third quarter after a 2-yard touchdown run by Brandon Bolden, after which Brady raised his arms in the air and then delivered an emphatic fist pump.
Meanwhile, on defense, strong play on early downs against the run set up more long-yardage situations on third down for the Titans, and the pass rush looked as disruptive as it had all season. The team’s eight sacks established a Patriots postseason record.
In advancing to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game, the Patriots extended their own record, which they had set last season when they passed the Oakland Raiders, who advanced to five straight from 1973 to '77.
As for the distractions, when it was mentioned to Brady that there had been a lot of negativity in the media over the past week, specifically regarding him, he smiled and said, "Really?"
That sparked laughter among some reporters, before Brady was asked whether he draws any satisfaction from silencing his critics.
"You know what? No," he answered. "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.
"It was a good team win today. We're going to need another one next week. Whoever we play is going to be a great team. I'm looking forward to playing in the championship game."