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Unfiltered Notebook 12/30: Patriots lock in on a short week of Titans playoff preparation

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The Patriots disappointing loss to the Dolphins not only cost the team the bye and will force them to play on Wild Card Weekend for the first time since 2009, but it immediately thrust them into a short week of preparation with the Titans set to come to Foxboro on Saturday night. It was a quick turn, from potentially getting a full week off of rest to suddenly having to prepare for a somewhat unexpected opponent.

"[The Titans] do everything well – well-balanced offense, lead the league in rushing, or has the rushing leader, have an outstanding group of receivers, quarterback is playing well," said Bill Belichick on Monday morning. "Good on defense, good up front, good secondary, good scheme. Probably the best punter in the league, so they do a lot of things well. They play hard, they're disciplined, they're well-coached. They're a good football team."

After dispatching the Texans' backup-laden squad, Tennessee clinched the last playoff spot in the AFC. Since shifting from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill, the Titans have had one of the most balanced and efficient offenses in the NFL. Leading the way is Derek Henry with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. The monstrous running back will pose a major threat to a Patriots defense that has had their inconsistencies against the run this season.

"[Henry] really does everything well as a runner," said Belichick. "He's got good vision. For his size, he sees things well. He has good quickness, he can get into space quickly and make the right cuts. He's elusive in the open field, but he's also very strong and powerful, and he can run through tackles and he has the speed to make long runs."

Despite the threat of Henry, the Patriots run defense has been better in recent weeks. In seven games since the bye week just two teams have cracked 100 yards rushing on the Patriots, with the Dolphins getting just 63. No, the bigger concern, especially coming off of the season finale, is the pass defense and the Titans have an excellent collection of targets, led by breakout rookie second-round pick A.J. Brown who tallied 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns. He's an ideal complement to Corey Davis, who torched the Patriots in 2018 for seven catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

"[T]hey're both very good receivers," said Belichick. "Again, as you said, big, physical, fast players. They do a good job in the running game. They block well, and that complements the running game and the play-action passes. So, you've got to be aggressive to come up and support the run with them, but then they do a good job of combining those with play-action passes. Those guys can get free, but they're fast, they're hard to tackle, and they're big targets and the quarterback's done a good job of putting it on them and hitting them."

Patriots defensive line coach Brett Bielema was most impressed by the guys up front doing to dirty work to open holes for Henry and give Tannehill time to find Brown and Davis downfield.

"I think this offensive line in particular has really shown to me that they're the best group that we've played to this point, just from tackle-to-tackle and everywhere in between," said Bielema. "They're a very solid group, play extremely hard, play with a little bit of edge to them, and it's really a fun group to prepare for."

Defensively, the Titans have former Patriots defensive coordinator Dean Pees running things. Pees is well familiar with the Patriots both as a coach and as an opponent having served as Baltimore's DC from 2012-2017. Led in their secondary by Logan Ryan (18 passes defensed) and up front by second-year linebacker Harold Landry (nine sacks), the Titans defense is one that largely resembles the kind of squad with versatility and toughness that the Patriots annually put together.

"They do what they do; they do it really well," said Josh McDaniels. "This is a really well-coached football team. They're very disciplined. They make you deal with a lot of different things. This is not a team that's going to play a couple coverages – they're going to spin the wheel on you. They play zone, they play man, they play blitz zone, they play blitz man, they drop eight in the coverage, they play different fronts, they blitz a lot of different people and they do it all pretty doggone well. I think their formula is – they have to be confident because the way they're playing, they've got a lot of good players, they're very physical up front, they're tough to block, they play extremely hard."

The Patriots will quickly have to put their disheartening loss to the Dolphins behind them if they're to lock in on the Titans and defeat them on a short week, but Bielema maintained a positive outlook.

"Everybody gets uneasy with adversity, obviously with us having a loss yesterday, but I think that's when the true competitor in everybody comes out," said Bielema. "And I know we've got a building full of them, and I know that the preparation for this game will be a lot of fun this week, and then we'll get to Saturday night and see where it goes."

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Kyle Van Noy on the Patriots playoff hopes:

"At the end of the day we're in a blessed situation -- we're in the playoffs. We're one of 12 teams in the playoffs. We have a chance to go on a revenge tour and what better way to start it off with Tennessee who we lost to last year. A big motivation, we weren't happy about our performance. They're coming into our house and what better way to get it started for the playoffs, Saturday at 8:15 at Gillette. I know it's going to be rocking. I'm excited for our players to perform in a way and play Patriot football on Saturday. I'm excited."

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