The Patriots postseason will begin sooner than anyone in New England expected, including the Patriots. But the disappointment of last week's loss to Miami that put the team in the wild card round must subside if the Patriots are to advance past the upstart Tennessee Titans Saturday night.
The Titans have basically been two teams this season. The first under Marcus Mariota saw Tennessee go 2-4 while scoring in a total of just 55 points over the last five games. That's when head coach Mike Vrabel inserted former Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill into the mix, and Tennessee finished 7-3 with a big-play attack that has been as productive as any down the stretch.
Stephon Gilmore, the Patriots top corner and one of the best in the league, views Tannehill as the difference.
"I think he's gotten better," Gilmore said of the veteran. "He's throwing some great balls and he's seeing the defense very well. He's the reason they're where they are right now."
The Titans averaged 30.4 points per game in the 10 games with Tannehill at the helm, the fourth-best total in the league. They average 9.6 yards per pass attempt and he Tannehill boasts a 117.5 passer rating, both tops in the league. In the red zone, the Titans converted 86.7 percent of their trips into touchdowns.
"Probably as explosive as anybody we've seen in a while," Bill Belichick said earlier in the week. "These guys are tough. They're a well-balanced team, had a lot of success in the last two-thirds of the season. Can see why."
So, how do the Patriots go about dealing with the Titans explosiveness? Obviously Gilmore wasn't willing to divulge any of those game plan secrets but it's worth a try as we examine some of the potential matchups.
Tannehill has relied heavily on his playmakers, starting with mammoth running back Derrick Henry. The NFL's rushing champ piled up 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground (he added two as a receiver). Clearly stopping Henry will be a priority for the defense, as Vrabel likes to keep Tannehill's pass attempts down by running the ball and staying out of long-yardage situations.
But assuming Henry has his share of production, dealing with dynamic wideouts Corey Davis and rookie A.J. Brown won't be easy. Slot receiver Adam Humphries has an ankle injury that has kept him out recently so his status for Saturday is iffy. Tajae Sharpe is also capable of contributing, as are tight ends Jonnu Smith and Andrew Firsker.
That's a lot for the secondary to contend with, and it will start with Gilmore. Despite a subpar effort in the finale against Miami, he's still among the best in the business and it might make sense for him to take Davis and allow J.C. Jackson to deal with Brown while getting safety help from Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.
Jonathan Jones should get Humphries or Sharpe while Patrick Chung will have his hands full with Smith. Terrence Brooks and Jason McCourty missed the finale with groin injuries, so the depth in the secondary is a concern given the bevy of options at Tannehill's disposal.
Brown enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign with 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns. At 6-1, 226 pounds he has some size to fight for the ball but also possesses dangerous speed and is gifted with the ball in his hands.
"Brown has gotten better and better as the season has gone on," Gilmore said. "He's hard to tackle once he gets the ball in his hands. That's one thing that sticks out about him. You have to get him on the ground if he does catch it. Tannehill is putting the ball right there. He's making some big throws."
While Davis' numbers are pedestrian (43 catches, 601 yards, 2 TDs), Gilmore knows what he is capable of. The two hooked up last season when Davis got the better of the matchup by grabbing seven passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. They also tangled quite a bit in Nashville in August during some joint practices.
"Davis is strong. He can run any route. He can make big catches," Gilmore said. "He's a good receiver and he's having a good year."
The Titans offer a lot to prepare for, and how Belichick chooses to employ his troops will be interesting to watch.
Patriots.com's Mike Dussault shares his players to watch during the Patriots AFC Wild Card Playoff matchup against the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, January 4, 2019.