The AFC East champion Patriots have an all-time record of 71-43-1 (.622) against AFC South teams. They lost to the Colts, but beat Houston and Jacksonville, outscoring AFC South teams by 36 total points this season. Here are five things the Patriots will need to do if they want to increase that margin over AFC South teams this week:
Not to make it sound as though simply showing up in Nashville, coachBill Belichick's old stomping grounds, will be enough to ensure your Patriots a win, but the fact remains: they've already clinched a playoff birth and home field advantage on Wild Card Weekend. Tangibly, the most they can gain in Tennessee is a No. 3 seed, meaning they'd play the AFC's No. 6 seed in the first round. Any other combination of results would see the Patriots claim the AFC's fourth seed and host the fifth-seeded team during the first weekend in January.
More importantly, showing up for a game means taking the field expecting to do what needs to be done in order to win it. Coach Belichick is a master strategist, there's no denying that point, but does this week's strategy involve resting the starters against a Titans team proven to be a late-game comeback threat? There's no telling until Sunday, but it seems likely that Tom Brady will start (it'd be his first missed start in 105 games). It also seems likely that backup Matt Cassel will fill in for much of the game, as he did in the regular season finale last year. Brady said this week that missing the game is "the type of thing that never enters my mind," and in the locker room, Cassel revealed that he took all the snaps in practice on Wednesday (Brady hadn't been spotted at practice this week until Friday after taking a shot to his throwing shoulder from Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram).
Then there are the implications of the fact that venerated reserve quarterback Vinny Testaverde has thrown a touchdown pass every season for the last 19 years, but hasn't recorded a single pass attempt this season. Belichick, faced with a question about Testaverde's streak on Friday said, "I'm not really into individual stats," noting that his goal, as always, is to win the game at hand.
There's a whole slew of other starters who could either play a majority of downs or ride the pine in this game, including: Laurence Maroney, whose sore back kept him out of two games in the last three weeks; Benjamin Watson, whose sore knee has hobbled him for two straight games and Vince Wilfork, who was in the locker room with a taped ankle Friday, walking without sign of a limp.
No matter who plays or fills in this week, the Patriots can't be expecting to put the Titans away early – quarterback Vince Young has led his team to six comeback victories this season in his eight career wins.
Stop the Vince-sanity
Belichick has had so many good things to say about rookie gunslinger Young this week that it calls to mind the week leading up to the Patriots most recent loss at Miami. Belichick spent much of that week touting defensive goliath Jason Taylor, prompting Taylor to say, "It's a compliment, but it's probably a little bit of a mind game, too. He probably does a little bit of that, but that's all right. I think I am tough enough to deal with it." If the two-time Rose Bowl MVP fall's apart this weekend, somebody out there is bound to point to Belichick's extended exaltation of Young and say, "He's why the rookie crumbled!"
However, in all probability, Young will look as sharp as he has during the last six weeks, which have all been Titans wins. He's a strong thrower, and has emerged as a game breaking scrambler, but he's lacking the experience as a passer to make his receiving corps look good. His No. 1 target is No. 83 Drew Bennett, since former Patriot turned Titan David Givens is on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his left knee. Young's got the poise to keep his team in this game, and perhaps, to win it. The Patriots front seven should be able to pressure him, and will probably be looking to keep him bottled up inside the pocket. The Titans are playing for a playoff berth and the distinction of being the only team in NFL history to start off 0-5 and still finish 9-7.
Win the turnover battle
Defensively, the Titans rank at the bottom of the NFL, but they've been very opportunistic when it comes to forcing turnovers. Against Jacksonville, they returned three turnovers for touchdowns in a 24-17 victory. The Patriots have taken advantage of opportunities, defensively, and now that safety Rodney Harrison is back on the field, he and cornerback Asante Samuel, who has eight picks on the season, could be in store for some highlight-reel ball-hawking in this game, especially if Young gets a lot of pressure from Ty Warren and Richard Seymour up front. The Pats cured their case of the fumbles, which until recently appeared more problematic than trying to figure out where to put your coins on the T since Boston's MBTA switched to those Charlie Tickets. But this is no time to rehash questions about ball security. The Patriots have a turnover ratio of plus-5, as do the Titans, putting both teams in a four-way tie for the ninth-best net differential in the NFL. Winning the turnover battle in this game will be key in stopping Tennessee's winning streak.
Be special on special teams
Tennessee has one of the better overall special teams units in the NFL. Both its punt and kickoff coverage has been above average all season. Craig Hentrich is at the top of the AFC when it comes to punting average. The Titans biggest threat on special teams is Pacman Jones, who's dangerous any time he gets his hands on the ball, as his two punt returns for touchdowns will attest. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been pretty consistent this season, missing his first field goal in 12 attempts last week, while Titans kicker Rob Bironas hasn't been reliable between 40-49 yards. Newly acquired punter (the Patriots third this year) Todd Sauerbrun didn't have the strongest start to his season last week when he averaged 35 yards per punt, but he admitted not taking a single rep with the Patriots, as a team, before that game. He's a three-time Pro Bowler, and his leg should look a bit stronger this week.
Regain the running game
Patriots running backs Maroney, Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk exploded out of the gates this season, but the team's rushing attack fell to the middle of the pile by midseason, and hasn't regained the spark it showed in the Cincinnati game. The Titans defense is ranked 28th in the league at stopping the run, making them the fifth-best team the Patriots could face with hopes of refurbishing their rushing attack. The Patriots should be able to string together long drives by running on first and second downs, thus avoiding third-and-long situations. New England's offensive line should be able to dominate Tennessee's defensive line, since the Titans don't have much depth at those positions and tend to wear down against grinding rushing attacks.
Notes:The Patriots practiced on one of their upper practice fields today, wearing helmets, sweats and shells. Everyone on the active roster was seen during the portion of practice available to the media. Have a safe and happy New Year from everyone here at Patriots.com and Patriots Football Weekly.