WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
Until Sony Michel is 100 percent following the knee injury sustained against the Bears, James White will continue to carry the load in the running game with receiver Cordarrelle Patterson as an occasional threat on early downs. It looks like Michel may be able to give it a go on Sunday, but it’s unlikely that he would be able to carry the full workload. It’s obvious the team is significantly more effective with Michel in the lineup, though, and his return should help. The Patriots struggled to move the ball on Monday night against Buffalo without Michel and relied heavily on Tom Brady to provide the firepower. Tennessee’s run defense ranked fourth in the NFL last season, but the team is playing much more nickel under coordinator Dean Pees to revive its pass defense, so teams have been able to gain significant yardage on the ground. How the Patriots approach this game and their overall effectiveness depends on Michel’s health, but they should still be able to move the ball well enough to win the edge.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Patriots still consider their passing game a work in progress, and the numbers support that theory. The biggest problem is getting everyone on the field together at the same time. After dropping 38 or more points in four consecutive games (with help from the defense and special teams), tight end Rob Gronkowski sat out in Weeks 7 and 9, hampering the offense’s ability to move the ball consistently. Brady’s rapport with Josh Gordon continues to build, and Julian Edelman is close to midseason form following his four-game suspension. Yet the passing game still hasn’t reached its full potential. Tennessee generates a lot of pressure with stunts and twists and, like New England, plays a lot of nickel to take away opponents’ receiving threats. Pees has had some success against the Patriots in the past, and enters the game with the top-rated scoring defense in the league. With defensive end Jurrell Casey playing at a high level, this is a dangerous matchup.
WHEN THE TITANS RUN
For a team that runs the ball more than 60 percent on first down, the predictable, bland Titans aren’t getting the production they need from running backs Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry. Lewis played an integral role in New England’s success during his three seasons in Foxborough, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but has slipped to a mere 3.7 per attempt in his first season after signing a four-year contract with Tennessee. Henry has been much worse, averaging only 3.3 yards per carry thus far after seeing his workload cut back last Monday night in Dallas. The Titans are stuck in a timeshare with two largely underwhelming running backs trying to make up for a passing game that has had little success finding the end zone. Even with limitations at linebacker, the Patriots should have no trouble keeping Tennessee in check on the ground in Week 10.
WHEN THE TITANS PASS
The numbers just aren’t there for the Titans right now. Marcus Mariota has been wildly inconsistent, and his receivers are still young and relatively immature. Corey Davis is the best of the bunch with Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor beginning to develop, but the Titans suffered a major blow early in the season when tight end Delanie Walker broke his ankle and veteran Rishard Matthews asked to be released after complaining about a lack of targets. The Patriots have had problems at times giving up plays in the secondary, but they don’t play down to the level of their competition, as evidenced by their performance in Week 8 against the Bills. They also racked up 11 interceptions in eight games and have been fairly effective in the red zone. Mariota, who has just five touchdown passes all season, has been prone to mistakes and going against a defense that has taken it away consistently all season is not a good combination.
The Patriots have been much better on special teams in recent weeks with the exception of a few penalties that have resulted in potential field-position swings for the opponent. Patterson proved he can still make game-breaking plays against Chicago when he returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the team’s win, but an ill-advised unnecessary roughness penalty on Edelman against the Bills put a struggling offense on a short field, which luckily only resulted in a field goal. With so many struggles offensively, the Titans are more reliant on special teams. Ryan Succop missed three field goals this season, including a 28-yarder last week, and punter Brett Kern ranked among the top five in the league at his position. So, Tennessee does have the ability to pin teams deep in their territory, but New England has more explosive playmakers.
The Titans are still within striking distance of the first-place Texans in the AFC South and need a strong second half in order to make it back to the playoffs. But even with the desperation factor in addition to this game being played at home, it’s hard to envision the Titans having enough to beat New England. The only saving grace is the Patriots haven’t been nearly as good on the road this year, even in victory, but they’ve won seven in a row against Tennessee, including last year’s playoff game, and have the advantage of facing a struggling quarterback with inconsistent receivers who don’t catch the ball. They also could get a boost from a large contingent of Patriots fans making the trip to Nashville. Titans coach Mike Vrabel thrived as a player under Bill Belichick during the first championship run by New England and now gets a crack at his mentor. There are plenty of former Patriots in Tennessee and that should provide an edge, but the Titans may not have enough offense to pull off the upset.