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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Brady's status only real concern against Titans

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart counts down his 'Top 10' players to watch during the Patriots Week 15 game against the Tennessee Titans.

Often this time of year the phrase, "If the playoffs started today..." is bandied the NFL in regards to teams that are on the postseason bubble.

As such, if the playoffs started today the Patriots (11-2) would be the No. 1 seed in the AFC and hold homefield advantage throughout January in a possible run toward defending the team's Super Bowl title.

But in places like Tennessee, where the playoffs are seemingly a long-off pipedream, it's more apt to say if the NFL Draft started today, the Titans (3-10) would be on the clock with the No. 1 overall pick.

So a win Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium for New England would actually strengthen each team's if-then scenario.

Tennessee comes to town in the midst another dismal season that already cost Ken Whisenhunt his job to turn the keys to the team over to Mike Mularkey on an interim basis.

The Titans had the No. 2 overall pick and used the selection on athletic Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. The rookie has had a solid year statistically, even if it hasn't led to as many wins as most on the Music City would have hoped. It's an investment in experience that should pay off down the road.

But there is only one quarterback storyline on the field this Sunday and that's regarding the health situation with Patriots passer Tom Brady. The leading Pro Bowl vote-getter missed practice on Friday due to illness. 

While it's unlikely that Brady would miss a game to illness - he's never missed a game to illness or injury other than the torn ACL that cost him all but a quarter of action in 2008 - that doesn't mean No. 12 being sick won't play a factor.

Is it enough for the heavily-favored Patriots to drop a second-consecutive home game to an holistically inferior foe? Probably not, but when you are talking about the health and status of Brady, it garners as much attention or more so than even his ties to controversial Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Here are a few key factors to focus on Sunday afternoon in Foxborough as one of the NFL's best teams hosts one of the league's recent annual doormats:

Brady's status - Brady doesn't miss games. Where there is a will, there is a way. And Brady's will is about a strong as any athlete's in history. But will No. 12 be under the weather when he's under center? Could that hinder his play or make him more susceptible to a talented Tennessee pass rush? Or, rather, might this end up a marquee moment in Brady's career as he guts through to light up the Titans defense once again? A Michael Jordan-like performance, though in a regular season game? Brady is always at the center of attention in Patriots Nation and that's magnified with him missing practice.

On the home front - Brady may be sick right now, but generally when discussing his health situation it's about avoiding injury and keeping him available. That's a concern of late given that he's been sacked three or more times in four of the last five games. He's also been hit much more often than that as the offensive line simply has not been good enough up front. There have been too many runaway rushers and too many one-on-one breakdowns by each individual member of the offensive line at different times. That group will be challenged by a pretty consistent, varied pass rush this week from the Titans. Tennessee ranks No. 3 in the NFL in sacks per pass play. The unit has totaled 35 sacks and 126 pressures in 13 games. The group is led by Brian Orakpo's seven sacks, but seven different guys have recorded multiple sacks this season. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is one of the more productive interior rushers in the game in recent years. So Sunday will present a challenge both inside and outside for a New England line that's simply not be consistently good enough of late. And it's an issue that could be even more important with Brady not feeling his best these days.

LeBeau's LeDefense - Bill Belichick expressed his endless respect for Titans assistant head coach/defense Dick LeBeau and what that legendary player and coach has given to the game of football over his more than a half century in the game. Statistically LeBeau and coordinator Ray Horton have the Titans ranking No. 13 in total defense and No. 9 against the pass, which is actually a dropoff for a back end that was previously in the top five for a while. But the group is tied for 23rd in points allowed and has given up 24 or more in five of the last six, including two straight weeks giving up 30-plus. LeBeau is essentially running the same schemes he ran in Pittsburgh, which means plenty of zone blitzes. And while the longtime defensive mastermind has a legendary reputation, Brady and Belichick have often found ways to put up plenty of production against LeBeau's units. New England had a 7-3 mark against Pittsburgh's LeBeau-led defenses from 2001 through last season, including postseason. The Patriots scored 24 or more points in six of those games, 34 or more four times. Brady has never had much of a problem dealing with LeBeau's schemes, even when the coach had much better talent than what he's currently working with now in Tennessee that's allowed opposing passers a combined 102.2 rating. It won't be surprising if Brady makes that number go up after this week.

[wysifield-embeddedaudio|eid="397366"|type="embeddedaudio"|view_mode="full"]In a zone - Mariota has done an impressive job leading the Titans offense as he transitions to the NFL. The rookie has a 91.9 passer rating, a 62.4 completion percentage and 19 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions. He also has 252 yard rushing with two scores (one from 87 yards) and even caught a 41-yard touchdown. He spreads the ball around, as nine different Titans have 10 or more catches, 11 have a catch of 20 yards or longer and 11 have scored a touchdown reception. Tight end Delanie Walker leads the way with 74 catches, more than double the No. 2 target. All that, though, creates just the NFL's 24th ranked passing attack. The Patriots are dealing with an injury to Devin McCourty (ankle) to could remove the team's most reliable, consistent force in the back end. Given Mariota's running ability, his big-play targets like rookie Dorial Green-Beckham and the Titans varied attack, this feels like a game that could have the New England secondary throwing a lot of varied zone coverages at the young quarterback. It helps against his running ability and puts pressure on Mariota to read the defense and make as many plays with his head as with his body. It would certainly be better to throw such a scheme at the young quarterback with McCourty running the show in the secondary, but Duron Harmon is having a solid year and with the rest of the mix should be able to get the job done.

Backs against the wall - With LeGarrette Blount joining Dion Lewis on IR, the depth of the New England backfield is certainly being tested. That could mean increased roles for both Brandon Bolden and James White. For his part, White has produced pretty much any time he's been called upon in recent weeks and Brady has said he has plenty of trust in the young sub back. Belichick clearly has a lot of faith in Bolden's ability to play on any of the four downs. Steven Jackson's workout this week has yet to lead to a signing, while Montee Ball is on the practice squad. It wouldn't be stunning for either to join the active roster and running back depth chart, even to serve simply as an emergency option. Still the focus will be on Bolden and White, the latter of which could finally get his shot to show his stuff on a more regular basis. The Titans have a middle-of-the pack run defense. Running the ball will likely be the key to winning or losing for New England, but it will be interesting to see how the backfield is deployed under the current less-than-ideal limitations.

Turning 30 again - New England has not reached 30 points since Oct. 29 against Miami. That after topping the 30-point mark six straight weeks following the opener. The Titans allowed Jets to get to 30 points last week and the Jags 39 the week before that. Brady should be on the field, as should Rob Gronkowski whose absence from the Friday practice field was not injury related. The Titans have gotten a little thin in the back end and could be ripe for a road whipping at the hands of the New England offense that hasn't had an easy road for a while. Tennessee's last trip to Foxborough was a 59-0 blowout loss in the early-season snow in October 2009. New England has scored 30-plus in three straight games against the Titans and four of the last five. It feels like at least a 30-poit day is due for the home squad at Gillette.

Prediction - New England is by far the better team in this game, even with its run of injuries, assuming that Brady is on the field. There is no real reason to think that won't be the case. But Patriots fans also have the taste of a home upset in their collective mouths thanks to the Eagles stunner two weeks ago. That's not going to happen again unless the Titans get the kind of big plays that Philly did. More likely, Brady will get the ball moving through the air to build an early lead. The defense will frustrate Mariota enough and keep the Titans from the big plays they need. That means a controlled rush, setting the edge and not letting anyone get behind you in the back end. It's textbook Belichick defense. The lead should grow for the home squad and the pressure will grow on a Titans team that is tied for 29th with a minus-9 turnover differential that's actually better off in the long run with a loss and a shot at the No. 1 pick. That all comes together for a Patriots 35-13 victory that has the potential to be even uglier than that. As long as Brady and Gronkowski play and nothing crazy happens, this one should be a well-controlled home win to take another positive step toward the postseason.

What other things will you be watching for in this Sunday afternoon as the Patriots look to continue to build momentum against the Titans? Let us know with a comment below!

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