Patriots 6-pack Preview: Titans arrive on a Wild run

Andy Hart
January 03, 2020 - 6:19 am

Bill Belichick doesn’t have to hype up this Saturday night’s meeting with the Titans (9-7) at Gillette Stadium as a playoff game. Unlike the Patriots’ (12-4) season-finale loss to the Dolphins, this Wild Card Weekend battle truly is a win-or-go-home scenario.

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While New England sputtered toward its first Wild Card game in a decade by losing three of the final five games of the regular season, Mike Vrabel’s upstart Tennessee squad arrives in Foxborough following a win-and-in game over the division rival Texans as well as victories in seven of the final 10 weeks of the year since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback.

Tannehill not only took home AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors for December, but ended up leading the NFL with a 117.5 passer rating, the fourth-highest single-season passer rating in NFL history.

Meanwhile, bruising running back Derrick Henry ran to the NFL rushing title with 1,540 yards, including 211 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale at Houston.

Sure the Titans lost games to playoff teams from Houston and New Orleans in December, but Tennessee also has some impressive momentum at this point, especially on offense having scored 27-plus points in six of the final seven weeks of action.

“We’re obviously closing in on the biggest game of the year, so we have a couple more days here of preparations to wrap things up on the Titans,” Bill Belichick said in his final press conference of the week on Thursday morning. “But as I said, this is a really good football team. They do a lot of things well – very, very explosive on offense and a tough group to stop. We’re looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge, and as I said, we’ve got a couple more days here to wrap things up and we’re going to use all of our time – we need it – and try to put everything together the best that we can to be ready to go.”

As the Titans try to continue to roll, New England had to pick itself up after a stunning Dolphins’ comeback win last Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Coaches and players alike turned their focus from shockingly losing out on the would-be bye to the Wild Card task at hand and the chance to try to defend their Super Bowl title, albeit on unexpected potential road to Miami.

“I think the realization was after how bad Sunday was, we came in the next day and we had to work,” safety Devin McCourty said. “We had stuff that we wanted to accomplish and we got the opportunity to do it, so because of how we played in the regular season, we get a chance to play in the postseason. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but I think it would really be bad to let one loss disappoint the whole rest of the season because we stayed and stuck on that. We’ve got a veteran group, we’ve got guys that understand that, and we’re excited about this opportunity. We’re going to work our butts off to be able to be prepared and go out there and play a tough game Saturday night.”

“There’s a lot of teams that aren’t playing this week, so I think you look at this like a great opportunity to do something you love to do, which is go play football. If you’re not looking at it like that, then you’re in the wrong place,” Brady concluded. “To have the opportunity to play for this team, in the playoffs, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter which weekend it is – the first weekend of the playoffs, second weekend, third weekend, fourth weekend – the team that wins is going to move on, and the team that plays the best is the team that’s going to win.”

As Belichick and his Patriots put the final touches on preparations for a Titans team that beat New England 34-10 last season in Tennessee, here are some key areas to keep an eye on in this rare Wild Card affair in Foxborough.

Oh Henry! – The first order of business for the Patriots defense is dealing with Henry. The 6-3, 247-pound bruiser has topped 100 yards in five of his last six games on the way to the rushing title. Henry clearly benefited from the switch at QB, having topped 4 yards per carry in every game that Tannehill has started after coming short of the number in the four games before the change from Marcus Mariota. Though the Patriots finished the season with the NFL’s No. 6 rush defense, it’s been the sneaky weakness of the unit all season. Tackling has been an issue at times. Joe Mixon and the Bengals ran it down New England’s throat in December. It’s a virtual certainty that Henry is going to get 20-plus carries. If he gets rolling and produces like he has more often than not in the last couple months it’s the first step toward success for the visitors.

Ryan’s hope – Make no mistake, Tannehill changed the season for the Titans. He put up MVP-like production over the second half. He made everyone around him on the Tennessee offense better. If he continues to do that his team has a chance. But Tannehill’s past in Miami includes six trips to Foxborough and not much success. Though he had some decent days against the Patriots as a Dolphin, six visits to New England weren’t good. He lost all six. Threw five touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions. Had passer ratings of 73 or below. Tannehill has just two interceptions in his last seven games. If he takes care of the football and makes just enough plays it will give the Titans an opportunity to win. But that’s not an easy task in Gillette Stadium in January against a Patriots defense that’s lived off turnovers, leading the NFL with 25 interceptions, five more than any other team. Is Tannehill a different guy than he was with the Dolphins? We’ll find out on Saturday night.

Season on the line – All year the Patriots offensive line has been in the spotlight, for better or worse. When New England has played some of its best football – including the win over the Bills in Week 16 – the line has been a big part of the recipe for success. The line was also the key force in the Patriots’ Super Bowl run a year ago. Finding winning success this winter will probably require another turn for the better for the big guys up front. The trench warriors need to help get Sony Michel going against the Titans’ solid, 12th-ranked rush defense. The unit also needs to give Brady time to get comfortable, something that’s been a challenge more often than not this season. They’ll face a test off the edge from Harold Landry and his nine sacks. There will be pressure on the inside from Jurrell Casey (5). It’s on the line to find a way to do its job with the season on the line.

No biggies – Henry has had a run of 24 yards or longer in six straight games, a touchdown rush of 50 yards or longer in three of those games. Rookie receiver A.J. Brown is averaging a silly 20.2 yards per reception on the season, having notched a reception of 50 yards or longer in four of the last six games. Belichick declared tight end Jonnu Smith the best in the game in terms of run-after-catch at the position. Overall Tennessee had four different players record a run of 25 yards or longer this season and nine different guys with a reception longer than 30 yards. The Titans are a big-play offense by any measure. Meanwhile the Patriots defense has done a decent job avoiding big plays, but the issue has crept up on occasion. New England needs to make Tennessee earn everything it gets over a long field. The Titans probably need a couple big plays to flip the field and give the upstart visitors a jolt. If the Patriots’ defense makes more big plays than it gives up it should live to play another day. If the Titans hit their usual big plays they might just be in line to move on.

Other – “Other” isn’t exactly a creative or telling tagline. But things like organizational familiarity, weather, the kicking game and other factors could indeed play a key role in the outcome of this key game. The success that Belichick’s former assistants/players have had over the last couple seasons is obvious. Brian Flores, Bill O’Brien, Vrabel and Matt Patricia all notched wins over the Hoodie the last two years. Tennessee’s ties to New England run deeper than the head coach. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees held the same role for the Patriots. Players like Dion Lewis and Logan Ryan (keep an eye on his potential matchup with Julian Edelman) would like nothing more than to dismiss their former team. But familiarity obviously doesn’t guarantee victory, the familiar visitors have to execute on the Gillette turf against Belichick, Brady, Edelman and the Patriots supposedly elite defense. Saturday night’s forecast calls for temperatures around freezing with 10-15 mph winds and a chance of snow. No quarterback is better to lead a team in those conditions than Brady. Is Tannehill up for it? Even he may not really have the answer to that right now. Playoff games often come down to a few key plays, sometimes in the kicking game. Certainly the Patriots have had the advantage in the third phase pretty much all season, especially with Nick Folk settling in at kicker late in the year. Tennessee has had its own kicking issues, hitting just eight field goals all season spread around three kickers. The Titans do have an elite punter, one that had Belichick gushing, in Brett Kern. Neither team had or allowed a return for a touchdown. Smart money says there will be a key play in the kicking game, but which team will make that play?

Prediction – There really are a lot of factors to digest in this Wild Card matchup. First, the records should probably be thrown out. Tennessee has played much better than its record at times, while New England has been worse than its overall record down the stretch. The New England defense feasted early in the year, but has been pushed around at various times over the last three games by the less-than-spectacular offenses of the Dolphins, Bills and Bengals. The Titans are very much capable of doing the same. Brady and his offense just haven’t clicked regularly enough, or as he put it been “tied together.” They certainly need to find a way to do that in order to attempt to advance to defend their Super Bowl title. If there is a wild card in this Wild Card game it could be either N’Keal Harry or Mohamed Sanu. New England needs to get more from its passing attack than just Edelman and James White, guys that Vrabel’s schemes have found a way to get physical with and slow in the past. But the complementary targets just haven’t been up to the task consistently all season. Put it all together and this has the makings of a dogfight. But that’s playoff football and in some ways that’s what the Patriots have been prepping for all season. While history won’t matter in the actual matchup, it’s hard to bet against Belichick and Brady in the playoffs in Foxborough, especially when it could be their last ride together. So we won’t, but it won’t be easy. We’ll go with the 20-17 win for New England to advance to a matchup with the Chiefs. But Patriots fans better hope their team is more confident in its play than we are in this pick.

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