The Patriots offense will need their best effort of the season if they're to get by the Tennesee Titans and advance in the NFL playoffs. After an offseason of turnover and a regular season filled with arrivals and departures, there has been improvement but this is still not the kind of Tom Brady-led juggernaut that we've become accustomed to over the last decade-plus.
Despite last weekend's loss to the Miami Dolphins, the offense still showed signs of progress which were undercut by a bad pick six and a defense that gave up 300 yards passing for the first time all season and didn't force a takeaway in their second-straight game. With a playoff bye on the line the offense was left to do it alone and missed just enough plays to let it come down to the last drive.
The positives? Rushing for over 100 yards for the fifth time in seven games since the bye, a resurgent offensive line and the continued development of rookie N'Keal Harry. But with Julian Edelman still fighting significant injuries and Mohamed Sanu still trying to live up to his Patriot debut when he had 10 catches, no one knows for sure what to expect on Saturday night and those feelings are complicated by a Titans defense led by a head coach and defensive coordinator who know New England inside and out.
"They mix it up, they mix it up," said Bill Belichick. "They blitz secondary players and they blitz linebackers, and then they fake up there and don't blitz anybody. They do a good job. Dean and Mike do a very good job of keeping the offense off balance with a variety of what they do defensively, so they're not very predictable and they give you a lot of different looks, but it's all things that they're pretty familiar with and they play well."
A key piece for the Titans is former Patriot Logan Ryan, who is a swiss army knife in the secondary.
"Logan's had a really good year," observed Belichick. "He does a little bit of everything. They blitz him some, some man zone, blitz zone, he's very good on disguise, all the things that he's always done well. He has good hands – made a good play on the ball like he did in the preseason game against us. He's a smart, instinctive player. He's had a really good year."
After four years with the Pats, Ryan knows what he's facing and with 4.5 sacks he's sure to spend some of the game coming after Tom Brady.
"I know how (Brady) operates," Ryan told the media this week. "He's the best of the best. It's going to be a great challenge for us, but I think we'll be up to it. We've had some big games against them, and things always change. (Ryan) Tannehill wasn't our quarterback when we last played them."
The Titans offense is getting most of the buzz, but their defense has the pieces that have traditionally given the Patriots offense problems -- a fluid scheme and front that can disguise with the best of them. They've failed to produce a takeaway in just two games this season.
"They're physical, they capitalize on your mistakes, have a very good secondary who – everybody back there can catch the football, so you make a mistake, they're catching the ball," said James White. "They run a couple different looks – try and run some jab blitzes, all that good stuff – and they're very well-coached."
If the Patriots offense is to put up enough points to win they'll have to do it against an opponent that knows exactly what they're facing.
"We're going to have to go on the road in a tough environment," said Mike Vrabel. "The Patriots are no strangers to winning playoff football games at home. I know what is ahead. We are basically walking into the viper's den. We are going to have to go on the road and beat a team that's won a lot of playoff games up there."
Practice & Injury Report
The Patriots had all players in attendance for a cold and windy New Year's Day practice on the lower field outside Gillette Stadium. The Injury Report continues to feature the same players with the same issues, putting a spotlight primarily on Jason McCourty as the only significant player who might not be able to play. McCourty has played just eight snaps total in two games since Week 11 at Philadelphia. He had been playing about 70 percent of the snaps in the first half of the season.
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
DB Terrence Brooks, Groin
OT Marcus Cannon, Ankle
LB Jamie Collins, Shoulder
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder
CB Jonathan Jones, Groin
CB Jason McCourty, Groin
Locker Room Sound Bites
Matthew Slater on throwing the past out for this weekend's playoff game:
"You know anything that's happened in the past around here is going to have no bearing on what happens on Saturday. Players who have played here, what they've done, it really means nothing. This is about us, the 2019 Patriots and the guys we have on this team right now and going out and playing a tough contest against the Tennessee Titans. It's going to be about our preparation, our execution and certainly we can't take for granted the opportunity that we have. We just assume that these opportunities are going to come around in the future but there's no guarantee that's the case. Let's try to live in the now and go out and make the most of the opportunity we have on Saturday."