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Scouting the Matchup: Healthy offense will lead the way

The Patriots offense figures to get some healthy bodies back in the mix and that will be too much for Tennessee to handle.


Until injuries cut down James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, the Patriots boasted one of the league's deepest backfields, led by the elusive Dion Lewis. The first-round bye should help some of those aforementioned running backs heal up in time for Saturday, but Lewis will shoulder the load regardless. The 27-year-old vet set new career highs with 180 carries, 896 yards and six touchdowns this season and enters the postseason as one of the focal points of New England's offense. He'll have his hands full against a Tennessee defense ranked fourth in the league against the run under the guidance of legendary coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Titans limited explosive Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt to just 42 yards in last week's come-from-behind playoff win and could give Lewis problems on Saturday, especially if Burkhead isn't available to take some of the extra carries. Advantage: Titans


This is another tough matchup for New England with second-year running back Derrick Henry coming off an explosive playoff debut against the Chiefs. Filling in for injured veteran DeMarco Murray, Henry rushed for 156 yards and scored a touchdown as Tennessee rallied from an 18-point deficit. The Patriots struggled against the run this season, particularly in setting the edge, and finished 20th overall, allowing 100 or more yards in seven of their final 10 games, but finished strong in Weeks 16 and 17. The addition of linebacker James Harrison provides more depth at a position that has been thin for one reason or another for most of the year. A healthy Kyle Van Noy is also important to the Patriots front seven as his versatility to play inside and out, as well as possibly shadow the mobile Marcus Mariota could be key.  Advantage: Titans


Despite another MVP-caliber season, Tom Brady struggled down the stretch, throwing an interception in five consecutive games for the first time in 15 years. Injuries to Chris Hogan and Burkhead in addition to protection issues up front slowed the passing attack, but with both players practicing again, it appears Brady will have a full complement of receivers in the postseason. They could get an additional lift if the speedy Malcolm Mitchell returns from injured reserve. More importantly, tight end Rob Gronkowski, a first-team All-Pro, is healthy after missing last year's playoff run with a back injury. The Titans also boast a first-team All-Pro in safety Kevin Byard, who led the league in takeaways, but the Patriots finished 2017 ranked No. 1 in total offense, second in scoring and passing. When healthy, they're almost unstoppable. Advantage: Patriots


The mobile Mariota is a dual threat with his ability to create plays in the running game, but his numbers dipped in 2017 following a breakthrough sophomore season. Mariota finished with half as many touchdowns this year (13) as he did in 2016 while also throwing a career-high 15 interceptions. With tight end Delanie Walker leading the team with 74 catches, the Titans don't have many big-play threats in the passing game outside of perhaps Eric Decker, who came through with the game-winning touchdown last weekend in Kansas City to match his entire 2017 total. The Patriots got lit up in the first month of the season but rebounded in October and November, ultimately finishing fifth in the league in scoring defense despite ranking 30th against the pass. The secondary has performed better of late, and that improved coverage has allowed the pass rush more time to creat pressure. It's hard to imagine Mariota being able to make enough plays to win again on the road in Foxborough. Advantage: Patriots


Led by seven-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater, no team is as consistent on special teams on a weekly basis as New England. The Patriots blocked kicks in three consecutive games (two field goals and a punt), scored on a safety on a botched punt return against the Chargers and benefited from a 103-yard kickoff return from Lewis in addition to a career-long 62-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski during the regular season. Don't forget punter Ryan Allen, who pinned three punts inside the 5-yard line in the season finale against the Jets. The Titans also have strengths on special teams, most notably second-team All-Pro punter Brett Kern, who led the league in gross average, but the Patriots are simply much deeper across the board. They were also one of only two teams to finish among the top five in punt- and kickoff-return defense. Advantage: Patriots


The Titans will be heavy underdogs Saturday, but they've overcome some incredible hurdles to get this far. After losing three consecutive games between Weeks 14-16, they clinched a playoff berth with a season-ending win over AFC South champion Jacksonville and then rallied from 18 down for a wild card win over the Chiefs in Kansas City. As questions swirled about his job security, head coach Mike Mularkey coached brilliantly down the stretch last weekend, and Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk has since committed to bringing him back. The problem is the Titans now face the challenge of winning a playoff game at Gillette Stadium, which only three teams have done in 20 tries during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. With an air of uncertainty lingering in Foxborough these days, the Patriots appear more focused than ever. Advantage: Patriots

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