The New England Patriots open the playoffs in the Wild Card Round against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night. It will be an unexpected debut for the Pats, who were a win over Miami away from securing the second seed in the conference and the weekend off that comes with it. But after a disappointing loss, the Patriots quickly had to turn the page from an expected week off to a shortened week of playoff preparation against one of the hottest teams in the NFL.
Winners of seven of their last ten after inserting Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, the Titans may be the sixth seed but they would appear to be peaking at the right time and have all the necessary pieces to knock off the defending Super Bowl champs. With the NFL's leading rusher Derrick Henry, who also had the third-most touchdowns this year, along with an electric rookie receiver AJ Brown who cracked 1,000 yards while averaging over 20 yards-per-catch, the Titans have the necessary weaponry to challenge a talented and deep New England defense.
But at the core of the Titans sits head coach Mike Vrabel, who handed the eventual 2018 Super Bowl champion Patriots their worst loss of last season. Vrabel, along with defensive coordinator Dean Pees, know the Patriots inside and out, and everything that must be done to get a rare victory over the Patriots in New England in January, something that hasn't happened since 2013.
Here are the Keys to a Patriots victory on Wild Card Weekend!
Stop Derrick Henry
There's no easier place to start with this gameplan than Derrick Henry, the NFL's leading rusher who scored 18 total touchdowns this season. If Henry gets going there might be no stopping the Titans offense as it will open up play action and the explosive plays that come with it. Henry's dominance hits a new level late in games, in the last seven he's averaging nearly eight yards-per-carry and has 10 touchdowns in the second half while rushing for almost 250 more yards than any other back in the NFL.
The Patriots run defense has been better in recent weeks, but they gave up 200 yards on the ground to the Ravens (who hasn't?), 131 yards to the second-leading rusher in the league, Nick Chubb, and 136 yards to ninth-leading rusher Joe Mixon. Holding Ezekial Elliott to 86 yards on 21 carries was the only time they kept a top-10 rushing back under 100.
It's almost like two gameplans. Stopping Henry early will be one critical thing to containing the passing offense, and stopping him late will be another by not allowing him to close the game out, and both are essential to the Patriots' hopes of winning. The depth of the Titans passing attack means heavy boxes won't be a favorable option so it will be up to the primary front seven run defenders like Danny Shelton, Lawrence Guy, John Simon and the linebackers to win the line of scrimmage, no easy task given Tennesee's talented and experienced offensive line.
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.
No Big Play Scores
Since Week 9 the Titans have the fifth-most explosive plays of 15-or-more yards in the NFL. That includes seventh-most passes and the third-most runs. Over that time the Patriots defense has allowed the third-fewest of those kinds of explosive plays so it would appear something has to give here. But this is largely dependent on how the game unfolds. If they're able to keep Henry contained early it will put more pressure on Ryan Tannehill to deliver consistently. Two of the Titans losses with Tannehill under center came when he had to throw more than 30 times, against Carolina and in Week 15 against the Texans, and he had an even three touchdowns, three interceptions in those games.
Taking away the big play is always one of the biggest keys for the Patriots defense, but the Titans explosiveness is less about the deep ball and more about the catch-and-run. They can still make plays downfield, but the bigger part for the Patriots will be their tackling, something in recent weeks that has been hit or miss. With everyone focused on their own challenges there won't be much help to go around, so sure tackling will be essential.
Ride the Run
Rex Burkhead and Sony Michel have produced better in recent weeks behind an offensive line and tight ends who are opening up holes that weren't there earlier in the season. Simply put, if the Patriots running game wins the physical battle everything will be a lot easier for the rest of the team. Last year, the Patriots rode their running game all the way to another Super Bowl. This isn't that same ground game, but there have been enough positives to believe that they can be a significant factor against a defense that is ranked 10th in run defense DVOA.
With limited receiving threats, the run game is vital to keeping the Titans from their creative disguise against the pass. That's the game they want to play and we need look no further than last year's matchup with the Titans to see what happens without a run game. The Patriots rushed for just 40 yards that day, forcing Tom Brady to attempt 41 passes. He was sacked three times and completed just 21 passes as the Titans rolled.
They can't get into that kind of game this time, especially with rain in the weather forecast. Whichever team runs the ball with more success will likely rule the night.
Tom Brady Forever
There's much speculation that this could be Brady's last game as a Patriot and if that's the case we know he'll go down with everything he's got. Brady has battled through multiple injuries, worked with multiple new receivers and tight ends and now faces an opponent that knows him extremely well. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees knows that presnap disguise is a must against Brady and if the running game can't get going against the Titans front it will all be on Brady to put together his best game of the season.
The good news for Brady is that the pass protection has been better. He can trust that he'll have time and go into the game confident that his blockers will be there. No one can take away what Brady has done over the last two decades for the Patriots and if this is the end, we know we'll get everything Brady has and it will take 60 minutes to stop him. It hasn't been easy or looked pretty much this season, but never rule Brady out in the playoff game, especially at home.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Titans have everything it takes to knock off the Patriots at home in the playoffs for the first time since the Ravens did it with Pees at defensive coordinator in the 2012 AFC Championship. They have all the elements needed, not only the traditional ones, but also the ones specific to these 2019 Patriots as well. Excellent running game, explosive passing game with numerous targets, an efficient quarterback who hasn't been turning the ball over and can also run when needed, with a defense and coaching staff that knows the Patriots, not to mention having beaten them off in convincing fashion last season. The Titans have every reason to be confident.
Add in a Patriots team coming off a shocking loss, and one that lost to the other top-three seeds in the AFC, and it would be easy to predict a Titans win. But these are still the Patriots, a team that has won more games when they've been counted out than anyone. This is not one of the best Patriots teams of the last twenty years but they're still the best-coached team in the league with the greatest quarterback of all time under center, and, oh by the way, they also have one of their best defenses with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at cornerback. A majority of their team, especially the secondary and linebackers, have been battle tested and won't blink.
This Patriots team still has something to prove in all respects and they'll find a way to finally get the kind of signature win that has eluded them all season.