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Scouting the Matchups: Defense too much for young Mariota

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The running game has not been a major part of New England's offense in recent weeks, and this is a tough matchup against an improved run defense in Tennessee. Despite their presence near the bottom of the AFC standings, the Titans have improved from one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last year to a middle-of-the-pack team under first-year defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Second-year linebacker Avery Williamson is enjoying a breakthrough season as one of the team's leading tacklers, and free safety Michael Griffin continues to make plays in the secondary. Poor run blocking and injuries up front have left New England one-dimensional offensively, but Brandon Bolden and James White have proven they can produce despite limited reps, so look for them to get playing time Sunday as the Patriots try to achieve some balance even without LeGarrette Blount. Advantage: TITANS

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WHEN THE TITANS RUN

The Titans don't have one running option that stands out among the others, but they've all contributed in some fashion, including rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is battling Dexter McCluster as the second leading rusher behind Antonio Andrews. Despite Andrews leading the team by a wide margin in carries and yards, the Titans have implemented more of a committee approach in recent weeks under interm coach Mike Mularkey, highlighted by the emergence of rookie David Cobb. There's also Bishop Sankey, a second-round pick in 2014, caught in the logjam for carries behind Andrews. Despite their struggles in recent weeks without Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots are still an elite run defense and figure to only get better as Jamie Collins regains his strength, as was evident last week in Houston when the front seven was dominant. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

There's an obvious difference in Tom Brady's performance based on the health of his receivers, which has been dicey in recent weeks. Keshawn Martin, Scott Chandler and Brandon LaFell, among others, have attempted to fill the gaps left by the sporadic absence of Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, but the consistency isn't there, and the play-calling has been erratic with few reliable targets. Expect White to play a larger role this week as he attempts to duplicate the production previously provided by injured running back Dion Lewis. The Titans are among the league leaders in sacks per pass attempt and have playmakers in the secondary, including Perrish Cox and Coty Sensabaugh, so the short-yardage passing might be the best way to keep Tennessee at bay and get Brady back in rhythm. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE TITANS PASS

With so many key players dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball, New England's secondary remains one of its strengths. Malcolm Butler has proven to be a capable No. 1 cornerback, and Logan Ryan has done the job on the other side, but finding a reliable nickel back has been a challenge. This might be an area Tennessee can exploit. The continued strong play of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota and the recent breakthrough of rookie receiver Dorial Green-Beckham makes the Titans a threat to challenge New England down the field. The Patriots also have to account for possession receiver Kendall Wright and tight end Delanie Walker, the Titans receptions leader by far. On paper, the Titans boast a strong lineup of skill players, but the strength of New England's pass rush and the consistency of its cover corners might be too much for them to handle. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

Recent debacles aside, the Patriots remain one of the league's most disciplined, productive teams in the kicking game, but it's hard to ignore the fact they've muffed two punts in the past three games. With gunner Matthew Slater playing at an elite level, opposing teams generally struggle to get yards in the return game. Punter Ryan Allen continues to be a weapon in the field position battle, and kicker Stephen Gostkowski is as good as ever. The Titans allow more punt return yards than anyone in the NFL, so this could be a big game for Danny Amendola, who will have to continue to play this role until further notice. They're also near the bottom of the league in return yards and are no without the dynamic McCluster. The Patriots hold a significant edge on special teams. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS

The last time they played at home, the Patriots were booed off the field at halftime and wound up allowing 35 unanswered points before a late rally that ultimately fell short. That is not how New England is accustomed to playing at home or in the month of December. This is the generally the time of year when the Patriots play their best football, so it'd be a major surprise if they followed up the Philadelphia game two weeks ago with another clunker against a last-place team. Their most recent setbacks have also put them in a position where they must now fight for playoff seeding, so every game matters, even if it's not the most appealing matchup on paper. The Titans are on their way to another sub-.500 finish, and the possibility of playing spoiler probably won't be enough to overcome the severe gap in talent between these two teams. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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