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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Can Titans run with Pats?
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After opening the postseason with a bye week for the eighth consecutive year, the defending-champion Patriots (13-3) finally join the playoff fun Saturday night hosting the upstart Titans at Gillette Stadium.
Tennessee arrives in Foxborough with a little momentum following a 22-21 comeback win in Kansas City on Wild Card Weekend. But the Titans, who limped into the postseason losing three of their final four games, are a nearly two-touchdown underdog to Bill Belichick’s experienced, rested squad.
In many ways the Titans don’t look like a postseason contender or team worthy of being in the final eight franchises still competing for the right to go to Super Bowl LII. Mike Mularkey’s squad is led by third-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, who threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13) during the regular season on the way to a 79.3 passer rating that ranked 27th in the league.
Tennessee was the only team in the postseason to allow more points than it scored during the year, owning a minus-22 point differential. The Titans also tied for 23rd in the NFL with a minus-4 turnover differential.
But many teams with much better statistics will be at home watching on TV this weekend like NFL fans, while Tennessee found a way to keep playing.
Belichick makes it clear you have to respect that fact.
“It’s an impressive football team. They do a lot of things well,” Belichick said. “They’re a very well-balanced team. They’re strong in all three phases of the game, really good in the kicking game. This is a team that’s been in a lot of close games. They’re tough, they’re resilient, won on the road, won tough games the last two weeks that they needed to win to be here. I have a lot of respect for their program, the way they play, the way they coach, the way they compete and [they’re] a tough, hard-nosed team.”
New England hasn’t lost in the Divisional Round since being upset by the Jets at Gillette following the 2010 season. But Belichick and his players know that any game played this time of year can be your last.
“It’s a one-game season. This is what you work for, is to get to this position,” Belichick said. “Now we’re in it. Now you put everything that you have into this one-game season. We have one game left against the Titans. We have to play better than they do to be able to continue playing. That’s a huge challenge. Obviously, every team that’s playing, I mean, there are eight teams left. All eight of them are good teams. Every team is good at this time of year. There’s a reason why they’re here. They’ve earned their way here. There’s no other reason why you’re playing this weekend unless you’ve earned it. We’ve earned it, the Titans have earned it and I’m sure it’ll be a very competitive game. They got a great football team. I can see why they’re here. They’re good, as I said, in all three phases of the game. They’re well coached. They’re a solid team. They’ve played under pressure. They’ve won under pressure. They’ve won on the road. They’ve had a good year and they’ve got a good team, so we’re going to have to be at our best. We know that.”
As the hours count down to playoff action in what could once again be a frigid Foxborough, here are some potential keys for this matchup between the Patriots and Titans.
Picture of health – Like seemingly all teams this season, the Patriots have some star players on IR including Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower and Martellus Bennett. But coming out of the bye week, New England is actually about as healthy as it’s been all season. Brady was removed from the injury report and practiced all week. Chris Hogan (shoulder) was also removed from the injury report after practicing all week and appears poised to return after missing all but one game over the second half of season. James White (ankle) remained limited in practice but sound like he’ll be ready to go against the Titans. Defensively, Alan Branch (knee) was limited but sounds ready, while Kyle Van Noy (calf) was removed from the injury report as well. All together the Patriots will get a pretty impressive injection of healthy talent to open the postseason to make the team look quite different than the one that took the field each week down the stretch of the regular season. That’s good news for Patriots fans and bad news for the Titans and the rest of the remaining foes.
Read and react D – Clearly some aspect of Tennessee’s upset plans include running the football to put together long drives and control the game. With DeMarco Murray out to a knee injury once again, that means Derrick Henry will carry the bulk of the load. He’s coming off an impressive game with 150-plus yards against the Chiefs. Mariota will also likely be a big part of the running attack with keepers on read-option plays. A healthy Van Noy should play a key role in defending Mariota and the run game. New England’s rush defense was a concern all season but had its best game in the finale. The unit has also historically had more success against bigger backs like Henry than quicker playmakers on the edge. If the Patriots run defense is competitive and slows down the Titans on the ground it will take away a lot of what Tennessee wants to do.
Favorite pass time – The strength of the Titans defense is the NFL’s No. 4 rush defense. The Patriots rarely run their heads into a brick wall and as such this matchup looks like a chance for Brady and his healthy targets to go after a pass defense that ranked 25th in the league. It wouldn’t be surprising to see New England spread Tennessee out early to throw and maybe even go with some up-tempo action. The Titans are far from inept on defense. The front includes a few different guys who could give the New England line trouble, including versatile DT Jurrell Casey. And the back end has All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions. Still, Brady has historically had his way with Dick LeBeau-led defenses and this game shouldn’t be any different. Given the health and depth of his weapons as well as Tennessee’s lackluster pass defense, this could be a night for Brady to quiet all the critics who’ve been highlighting to his dip in production over the last month-plus of the regular season. Safety tip: Don’t bet against a big game for Brady!
Freeze frame – The weather sounds like it is going to be interesting on Saturday, with early-morning high temperatures in the 50s quickly giving way to what could be game-time conditions in the 20s. Coming after overnight heavy rains, it will be cold and there could be some icy conditions. Though veterans always warn us that it’s cold for both teams, New England has great experience and past success dealing with bad weather. Brady is the best bad weather quarterback in history. Though it always bears watching, the weather should be more of an issue for Mariota and the Titans than the home squad.
Care package – Given the potential icy conditions and the fact that Tennessee had a relatively impressive 21 takeaways during the regular season (the Patriots had 18), ball security may be even slightly more critical than the average playoff game. There is no question that no team wants to turn the ball over the postseason as it’s the easiest way to ensure your season coming to an end. The Patriots have taken care of the football most of the year and allowed opponents to make their share of costly mistakes. Tennessee gave the ball away twice in victory last weekend. If they do that again, New England is likely to make them pay.
Go away big plays – As much as Tennessee will likely try to churn out yards on the ground to control the game, they will still need plays in the passing game to put points on the board. Certainly that could come from some efficient red zone work by Mariota, where he’s never thrown an interception. But it also might come on big plays, which have been a thorn in the Patriots side on and off all season. Rishard Matthews is the biggest big-play candidate for Tennessee with a 15-yard average during the regular season, including a 75-yard touchdown. Seven different Titans had a pass play longer than 29 yards this season, while Henry had a 75-yard run and Mariota a 34-yarder. New England needs to swarm to the ball and tackler well to insure that its big play problem doesn’t continue on defense and doesn’t give the Titans a boost toward an upset.
Prediction: There is little information that would lead one to the conclusion that the Titans are likely to win on Saturday night. The Patriots were by far the better team during the regular season. New England is rested and healthy. Brady should be able to move the ball well through the air against LeBeau’s schemes as he’s done in the past. Rob Gronkowski is healthy and motivated to continue his impressive season. Mariota’s legs are a concern as the Patriots have had issues at times this year and in the recent past against mobile QBs. But it’s hard to envision the Titans doing anything efficiently and consistently enough on offense to keep pace with Brady. Some may fear a sluggish Patriots start coming out of the bye, but the guess here is that just the opposite occurs. New England gets off to a fast start and an early lead. It controls the game and never lets Tennessee find any traction on offense. Brady throws for 300 yards. Gronkowksi has 100 yards receiving and a touchdown. The Patriots control their way to a 30-10 victory to advance to the AFC title game yet again.
What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below! Read