On Sunday, the streaking 7-4 New England Patriots will welcome the 8-3 Tennessee Titans in a key battle for AFC supremacy with the top seed in the conference potentially on the line.
The Titans rolled off a six-game win streak before getting beat at home last weekend by the Houston Texans. Four Titan turnovers played a key role in the defeat as Tennesee continues to recalibrate after being hit hard by the injury bug.
The Patriots are on their own five-game win streak after starting the season 2-4 and have knocked off some key AFC playoff contenders during the stretch, with wins over the Chargers and Browns. Now, they'll face their stiffest conference challenge yet, but with a win, combined with a Ravens loss, New England will stand alone atop the AFC as they head into the final five-game stretch.
Here are the key player to watch in the major contest!
Mac Jones, QB: As always this season, the Patriots rookie quarterback is a must-watch as he looks to extend the Patriots win streak. Last week, against the Falcons, Jones was once again efficient and avoided any game-changing mistakes though he did throw just his second interception in the last four games. The Titans defense has playmakers at all levels, including one of the best safety groups in the league, and they should provide the latest stiff test for Jones. He just needs to keep doing what he's been doing and the Patriots offense should be okay.
Hunter Henry, TE: Henry was kept out of the end zone against the Falcons but still has three touchdowns in his last three games as he's emerged as Jones' favorite red zone target. His importance to the offense seems to be growing each week, and his growing rapport with the rookie quarterback continues to show up. The Titans should make Henry a key part of their defensive gameplan, with safety Kevin Byard, one of the best coverage safeties in the NFL, playing a big role
Jonnu Smith, TE: Smith has 22 catches for 210 yards and a touchdown this season, while Josh McDaniels called this a "foundational" first year for the tight end. Against his former team, Smith will certainly be looking to make a significant impact and with Hunter Henry likely to draw a heavy amount of attention, it could open things up matchup-wise for Smith. He should be extremely familiar with the Titan defense and could see this game spark him on to a strong finish to the regular season.
Matthew Judon, LB: What hasn't been written or said about the impact Judon has had on the Patriots defense with his career-high 10.5 sacks and whopping 22 QB hits? With injuries hampering the Titans running and passing game it will put additional pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Judon should be able to capitalize, especially when the Titans end up in third-and-long.
J.C. Jackson, CB: Like Judon, there's isn't much secret to J.C. Jackson's outstanding season as he leads the league with 15 passes defensed while adding six interceptions including one that he returned for a touchdown. Jackson is allowing an opposing QB rating of just 40.7, while quickly approaching a career-high number of targets. If AJ Brown is available to play, he can expect a heavy dose of the Patriots' best cornerback and it will perhaps be the key matchup of the game.
Ryan Tannehill, QB: Tannehill is coming off the worst game of his season, throwing four interceptions in a 22-13 loss to the Texans while still completing 35-of-52 passes. With no Derrick Henry or Julio Jones and a potentially limited-at-best AJ Brown, the pressure will once again be on the Titan QB to deliver with a hampered group of weaponry. Unless the Titans suddenly find their Henry-replacement running game, this game will be mostly on Tannehill's arm against a Patriots defense that has been terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
A.J. Brown, WR: Brown battled through injuries last week and remains questionable for this week's contest against the Patriots and while he hasn't had the same production as last season when he had 11 touchdowns, he remains one of the most dangerous receivers in the game. With 46 catches for 615 yards and three touchdowns, he leads the Titans but there currently isn't much support around him. If he is able to play, he'll draw plenty of attention from the Patriots secondary.
Harold Landry, OLB: The former Boston College star leads the Titans with 10 sacks, already setting a career high in his fourth season as he's been a consistently disruptive force all year. The Patriots' tackles will have to make sure that Landry doesn't control the edge as he's an every down player who can do it all.
Jeffrey Simmons, DL: The third-year pro has exploded this season with 7.5 sacks and generally being a disruptive wrecking ball at the heart of the Titans defense. He followed up a three-sack performance against the Rams with two more the following week against the Saints before being held sackless against the Texans last week. If the Patriots offense is to be productive on in any capacity on Sunday their interior offensive lineman are going to have to win the war against Simmons.
Kevin Byard, S: Byard is simply one of the best safeties in the NFL and is producing one of his best seasons with five interceptions and 52 tackles. Byard can do it all, whether playing on the back end or up near the line of scrimmage and playing coverage. He figures to be a key part of the Titans' gameplan as his effectiveness against tight ends matches up well with the Patriots' attack.