Marcus Mariota is 24 years old, a Heisman Trophy winner who completed the Tennessee Titans’ dramatic playoff comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs last weekend with a critical late-game block, of all things. It was big-time. It didn’t just deliver Mariota’s first postseason victory, it further established him as a budding star in the league.
His reward? A trip to the most challenging situation in the NFL – a Saturday night playoff game in Foxborough, a time and place where hot-quarterback and postseason dreams go to disappear.
Including Jan. 19, 2002 – yes, the Tuck Rule game – the New England Patriots of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era have played nine Saturday night home playoff games.
They’ve won all nine of them.
This week is No. 10. It’s up to Mariota to do what Rich Gannon (2002), Steve McNair (2004), Byron Leftwich (2006), David Garrard (2008), Tim Tebow (2012), Andrew Luck (2014), Joe Flacco (2015), Alex Smith (2016) and Brock Osweiler (2017) couldn’t – namely avoid being Patriots playoff roadkill.
“When it comes down to it, it’s all about us,” Mariota said, downplaying the thought of being surrounded by cold temps, swirling frozen rain and five Super Bowl banners. “And I think that has been the mindset through this entire season. Ups and downs come and go, you just want to make the most of this opportunity.”
Mariota may be the best young quarterback in the NFL. He may prove to be a league MVP and Super Bowl champ one day. Who knows? He also isn’t the first to minimize the stage and opponent, mainly because attempting anything else would be daunting and intimidating.
Yes, that’s Belichick over there, scheming against you. And yes, that’s Brady, just waiting to make you pay for every punt or pick. Then there is everyone else who has rotated in and out through the years and made the Pats the toughest out in football for nearly two decades.
“They don’t make many mistakes,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “Everybody tries to stop these guys, it’s a chore to do that.”
New England’s Saturday night home playoff game record is impressive, but, obviously, it’s mostly a product of the Patriots being the Patriots, not the kickoff time or location. They’ve won plenty on Sunday afternoons, too, home, road and neutral site. Brady’s 25 postseason wins (against nine losses) is by far the NFL record for a starting QB (Joe Montana is second at 16-7).
Still, Gillette Stadium must play a part. It is a unique venue (as was the old Foxborough Stadium in that 2002 victory over Oakland in the snow). It is tucked off into the New England woods. Traffic getting to and from the game is so intense, fans tend to arrive particularly early (especially for a Saturday night game), which seemingly produces a crowd well-lubricated for noise and ferocity.
Night comes early in the Northeast. Sunset should be just after 4:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. That’s why you can count not just the Saturday 8 p.m. games (7-0) but the 4:35 kick “afternoon” games (2-0). This week kicks off at 8:15 p.m., which means it will also be dark for the Titans’ long bus ride into Foxborough. The route winds through neighborhoods and along tight, winding, forest-lined Massachusetts roads. Once there, minus a city backdrop like most NFL stadiums, a blackness envelopes everything just outside the stadium lights. And, of course, it’s winter. The forecast calls for a low of 20 and freezing rain.
This is the NFL hinterlands. Maybe it matters.
In those nine Saturday night playoff games, opposing quarterbacks completed just 56.9 percent of their passes and gained an average of 225.3 yards. They threw for 12 total touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Brady’s average line: 62.9 percent completions for 277 yards. He’s tossed 20 TDs and just five picks.
Oh, and the cumulative scoreboard: Home 276, Away 149.
Mariota isn’t one to rattle though. His disposition is as calm as his native Hawaii. He has led five game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. He’s one of 35 Titans who played in their first playoff game last week, but didn’t seem awed by the stage.
“We’re excited,” Mariota said. “It’s a great opportunity.”
He knows he has to be careful with the ball (he threw a red-flag 15 interceptions this season) and not force plays in an effort to match what Brady might do.
“He’s been the best,” Mariota said of Brady. “He’s been the best for quite some time. You know, for a young guy like me, that’s what you aspire to be.”
The Titans’ persona is a good one to have – collected and confident. They are a small-market, up-and-coming team not really concerned what anyone else thinks or if anyone even knows who they are. The Patriots are the A-side here. That’s OK, Mularkey reminded them.
“I said to them out there, ‘Isn’t this cool?’” Mularkey said. “This is what you’ve guys have worked for. There is no reason to get uptight. I want them to enjoy this. This is a great experience.”
Well, it could be. It just hasn’t been for anyone else.
“They’re the champs,” Mularkey said. “These are the types of teams you have to beat if you want to be the champs.”
He paused for a second before adding a final note.
“At their place.”
On a January Saturday night no less.
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