After pulling off a nice win on Thursday night against the Falcons, the Patriots had their first weekend off since the preseason and watched their playoff optimism continue to grow after the weekend's results once again delivered a collection of surprising outcomes. With the Bills and Titans both losing and upcoming matches for the Patriots against both of them, where New England will end up in January is even more firmly in their own grasp than when they entered the weekend.
Football Outsiders' projection is the most bullish of all, with the Pats currently the favorite to not only capture the top seed in the AFC but also the league-wide Super Bowl favorite. But statistical projections are one thing and actually executing the wins necessary to reach such lofty heights is another. As usual, there's no talk of playoff seedings or anything other than next week's opponent that is up for discussion inside the walls of Gillette Stadium, and on Monday all sights were focused directly on the Tennesee Titans.
"They're a tough, physical team," said Bill Belichick, kicking things off in the morning with a virtual press conference. "The backs run hard. They have a very experienced line. Obviously, [A.J.] Brown is a huge threat. [Anthony] Firkser had some big plays against us when we played against them in '19. Defensively, they're, again, a strong, physical team. Up front, you've got to handle the big guys. You've got to handle [Jeffery] Simmons and then [Harold] Landry and the pass rush. They're a typical Mike [Vrabel] team. They're tough. They're physical. They make you beat them. They don't make many mistakes. They know what they're doing. They're sound. They're a good, fundamental team."
The Patriots 2019 AFC Wild Card loss to the Titans was a disappointing ending to the year, not to mention the final appearance by Tom Brady in a Patriots uniform. In that game, the Pats defense had no answer for Derrick Henry, who rushed for 182 yards on 32 carries with a touchdown. Henry was so dominant that Ryan Tannehill completed a mere eight passes on 15 attempts, as everything played into the Titans gameplan, while the Patriots offense struggled to put up points.
The Titans have continued to have similar success with Henry over the last season-and-a-half, but now, with the big running back on Injured Reserve, this rematch will take on a new dynamic. Still, the Patriots know this is a team that shares some similar roots to themselves and regardless of available personnel, they know it will be a good old-fashioned physical football game.
"I think it's a direct reflection of who Mike Vrabel was as a player himself, he always had that kind of mentality with him," said Troy Brown of the character of the team run by his former Patriots teammate. "I think he's passed that on to his players now as a head coach. And you can see a lot of the way they play, in the way they approach the game, a lot of Mike Vrabel and what they do as a football team and the way they come out and play they play physical, they play fast, they try to play tough, they compete. They do all those things and those are all good examples of what Mike Vrabel was a football player."
Receivers coach Mick Lombardi thought it was easy to see the similarities between the two teams.
"There's a lot of similarities in terms of what we believe in and how we wanna win games -- complementary football, playing tough, being the more physical opponent," said Lombardi. "It's a great challenge ahead for us this week against Tennessee and we're looking forward to it."
"We're gonna have to be ready to go because this is going to be a huge challenge," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "This is certainly the best team we've played so far this year, so we're gonna need to be at our best on Sunday."