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Unfiltered Notebook 12/31: Patriots brace for well-balanced Titans attack

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The Patriots loss to the Titans in 2018 was one of the more surprising and disappointing efforts of what would eventually become New England's sixth Super Bowl-winning season. Behind a near-flawless performance by Marcus Mariota, a seven-catch, 125-yard performance from Corey Davis and an efficient running game with Derek Henry and Dion Lewis, the Titans handed the Patriots their most lopsided loss of the season.

Now the teams meet again, this time with everything on the line, and the Patriots defense will be looking for an answer to shut down Tennessee's attack. With AJ Brown and Ryan Tannehill now in the mix, the Titans are firing on all cylinders and will take aim at a Patriots defense that hasn't forced a turnover in three of their last five games.

Davis gave the defense enough problems on his own last year, but with Brown in the mix, the Titans have two big-play threats who can score from anywhere on the field.

"He's really tough," Bill Belichick said of the rookie Brown. "Hard guy to tackle. Fast, strong, quick in the open field. They get him the ball in open space and he takes those 10 yarders and turns them into 60-yard touchdowns. He's really good."

Brown has 25 catches for 605 yards and five touchdowns in his last six games, including a 51-yard touchdown catch in last weekend's season finale and Davis isn't far behind with 43 catches for 601 yards on the season. Stephon Gilmore saw plenty of Davis in last year's matchup and sees a big challenge from the Titans passing attack.

"He's a good route runner," Gilmore said of Davis. "Explosive. With him and Brown, there's two great receivers who are hard to cover. Tannehill is playing great ball, he's putting the ball on them, so it's going to be a big challenge for us."

Tannehill is playing the best football of his career and is the biggest x-factor of the playoff game. He's thrown just two interceptions in the last seven games, a critical element of success against the Patriots defense that preys on turnovers. How safe Tannehill is with the ball could very well determine the outcome of the game.

"He's thrown the ball very accurately and is making great decisions," said Belichick of Tannehill. "He's playing very well."

The explosiveness of the offense jumps out, but despite having the best red zone numbers in the league, it's more about the catch-and-run than the deep ball, and for as good as Brown and Davis are, secondary threats like tight end Jonnu Smith and receiver Tajae Sharp have been effective as well.

"They score from way out a lot," said Belichick. "The ball gets spread around pretty good. There's no just one guy that they're throwing to. They do a good job getting the ball to everybody and they have obviously the best running game in the league."

That running game is powered by Henry, who has rushed for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and has the Titans ranked third in the league in rushing yards-per-game. The Patriots run defense hasn't been an issue in recent weeks, but this will be their toughest challenge of the season.

"Derrick Henry stands out," said Brett Bielema. "But, I would say in addition to him, the offensive line. They have a lot of good players up front, veteran players from [Taylor] Lewan to [Ben] Jones in the middle, to [Rodger] Saffold to obviously they have [Nate] Davis in there, who's a rookie. But, I mean, there's just a lot of continuity there with that group that I think does a lot of things that allow Henry to get started, and when he gets going, he's a tough man to tackle."

The Titans offense presents just about every challenge a defense can face -- a diverse offensive backfield, a collection of explosive receivers and tight ends and a quarterback who is not only playing clean football but can also run for yardage when it's there. The Patriots defense has seen similar challenges this year and the better ones, like Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City, have gotten the best of them.

Tennessee might not have some of the top end talent that those teams have, but the sum of all their parts might make them the better team. If New England is to advance they'll need their best group effort of the season.

Stats Matchup

Table inside Article
Stat Patriots (12-4) Titans (9-7)
Offensive Points-per-game 26.3 (7th) 25.1 (10th)
Offensive Third Down 38.3 percent (17th) 37.8 (18th)
Offensive DVOA 11th 6th
Offensive Passing DVOA 14th 6th
Offensive Rushing DVOA 16th 5th
Offensive Red Zone 50.0 percent (26th) 75.6 percent (1st)
Turnover Ratio +21 (1st) +6 (9th)
Defensive Points-per-game 14.1 (1st) 20.7 (12th)
Defensive Third Down 24.1 percent (1st) 36.3 (8th)
Defensive DVOA 1st 16th
Defensive Passing DVOA 1st 21st
Defensive Rushing DVOA 6th 10th
Defensive Red Zone 48.3 percent (4th) 68.1 percent (31st)
Special Teams DVOA 11th 29th

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