Patriots-Titans playoff preview from Tom E. Curran
It’s easy to scoff at the idea that expatriate Patriots are better equipped to go against Bill Belichick’s program than other teams. But the evidence is too overwhelming to refute. From last Sunday back to Super Bowl Sunday 2007, the Patriots’ past is pockmarked by defeats dealt to them by former employees.
One of the most resounding of those came last year in Tennessee when the Titans pummeled the Patriots, 34-10. The Titans scored 17 in the first quarter and 24 by halftime as Marcus Mariota picked them apart, Derrick Henry ran with relative ease and the Tennessee defense bottled up the Patriots ground game and teed off on Tom Brady.
After seeing what Miami did last week to the Patriots, there’s really no reason for Tennessee to quake in the face of a Patriots team that just got pantsed by the Dolphins.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Patriots can’t revert to run-stuff central on first down. They ran the ball with great effectiveness two weeks ago against Buffalo and that was a huge key to the success of the passing game. Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead have both run the ball effectively the past three games. It’s a good sign heading into this one against a Titans defense that has a decent 3-4 front with Da’Quan Jones, Jurrell Casey and Jeffrey Simmons.
The Titans haven’t kept a team under four yards per carry since the start of December and four of the past six teams have topped 100 against them. They are average at stopping the run – 12th in the league. The Patriots are below-average in running it but trending upward. So, much of this game is going to come down to how the two offenses perform on first down but for the Patriots – strapped as they are in the passing game – it’s even more vital.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
Tennessee has had games where they’ve gotten picked apart by opposing quarterbacks. Before the Texans mailed it in for the season finale, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson and Derek Carr all completed at least 70 percent of their throws. Even Jacoby Brissett and Nick Foles had decent days statistically throwing against Tennessee.
There is talent on their back end, especially at safety (Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro), corner (Adoree Jackson) and slot corner (Logan Ryan) but the corner depth isn’t great and the Titans pass rush isn’t daunting. Still, the Patriots aren’t scaring anyone throwing the ball right now. It’s a matter of doubling Julian Edelman and keeping him from ruining the game.
The Patriots will need Mohamed Sanu and/or N’Keal Harry to emerge. There’s nobody else to really put your chips on against a defense that last season threw the Patriots offense all over the stadium. New England’s best bet is to play tempo against Tennessee. It’s when they are at their best and when defenses come a little undone.
WHEN THE TITANS RUN
Derrick Henry’s run for 896 yards and 10 touchdowns in his past six games (he was inactive vs. New Orleans in Week 16). He led the NFL in rushing with 1,540. The unique threat he poses is the combination of size (6-3, 250), power (for giggles here are some high school highlights https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e2yfWsFk3c ) and breakaway speed.
The Patriots front seven has to slow him down/bring him down before he gets into the secondary or that’s going to be bad for business. The Titans will go to multiple tight end sets to get beef on the field to help Henry, but they’ll also spread with those tight ends on the field and run play-action. Henry’s mere presence on the field is a game-changer for the Patriots. Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton need to be at their best up front.
The so-so tackling we’ve seen at times downfield from the Patriots in some games won’t cut it with Henry. Or, for that matter, with rookie wideout A.J. Brown after-the-catch.
WHEN THE TITANS PASS
How much heat can the Patriots put on Ryan Tannehill? How jumpy can they make him in his first postseason game? Those two questions loom large because Tannehill is A) very hot right now … so hot and B) pretty familiar with playing New England and is 4-7 against the Patriots. That’s not a horrible track record. The Titans have had protection issues. Marcus Mariota took sacks as a bizarre rate 21 in his final four starts – and Tannehill’s had two four-sack games, a five-sack game and a six-sack game in his stint as the starter.
If he gets time – or creates it for himself because he does move well – then the Patriots will need to hold up in coverage and hope he’s been a lot less accurate than he’s been the past 10 games when he’s completed 70 percent of his throws.
He’s got a very nice complementary group of targets – Adam Humphries (dinged up this week and out of the game) is usually in the slot, Corey Davis and A.J. Brown are outside big-play threats, Jonnu Smith is a fast and reliable tight end and Tajae Sharpe is a productive third/fourth option at receiver.
The Patriots are outstanding in coverage but one tender spot they have is big-play vulnerability. Jonathan Jones has been picked on downfield as has J.C. Jackson. The Titans will test deep. The absence of Humphries is a boon for New England since Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty have both been dealing with groin issues as well.
The Titans have been laughably bad kicking field goals this year as Cairo Santos, Ryan Succop and Cody Parkey combined to go 8 for 18 on field goals. They now employ Greg Joseph, hired on Dec. 18 and he is 9-for-9 on PATs but has yet to attempt a field goal. Succop was 1-for-6 on field goals before being placed on IR. So Vrabel will have to weigh that.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have gotten a terrific contribution from Nick Folk since bringing him aboard. Very steady. Both punters are very good – Brett Kern is one of the league’s best. He dropped 37 of his 78 punts inside the 20 and has a 43.1 net. Jake Bailey has been similarly effective in pinning teams deep and has three of the league’s best cover guys – Matt Slater, Justin Bethel and Nate Ebner – chasing down punts.
There probably won’t be many punt returns – the Patriots barely try to bring them back these days as it is. Both teams are pedestrian in kickoff returns.
QUESTIONABLE: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (knee), DB Terrence Brooks (groin), LB Jamie Collins (shoulder), WR Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder), CB Jonathan Jones (groin), CB Jason McCourty (groin).
OUT: WR Adam Humphries (ankle). QUESTIONABLE: S Dane Cruikshank (illness), WR Cody Hollister (ankle), WR Kalif Raymond (concussion), LB Daren Bates (shoulder), OT Jack Conklin (knee), CB Adoree Jackson (foot).
John Hussey is the referee. The screaming stupidity of “All-Star crews” for the postseason is in effect, meaning the officials working the game are thrust together for the first time this season.
Hussey is in his fifth year as a referee, his 18th as an official. All the other officials have 10 or more years experience except for back judge Rich Martinez who has six. So at least they’re experienced.
The Patriots are favored by 4.5. The total is 44. The Patriots are 9-7 against the spread, 4-4 ATS at Gillette. Nine of the Patriots 16 games have gone under.
Titans 23, Patriots 20
Week 1: Patriots 16, Steelers 13
Final: Patriots, 33-3
Week 2: Patriots 30, Dolphins 0
Final: Patriots, 43-0
Week 3: Patriots 20, Jets 6
Final: Patriots, 30-14
Week 4: Patriots 19, Bills 13
Final: Patriots, 16-10
Week 5: Patriots 30, Redskins 13
Final: Patriots, 33-7
Week 6: Patriots 16, Giants 3
Final: Patriots, 35-14
Week 7: Patriots 16, Jets 13
Final: Patriots, 33-0
Week 8: Patriots 27, Browns 10
Final: Patriots, 27-13
Week 9: Patriots 23, Ravens 13
Final: Ravens, 37-20
Week 11: Patriots 26, Eagles 13
Final: Patriots, 17-10
Week 12: Cowboys 23, Patriots 16
Final: Patriots, 13-9
Week 13: Patriots 24, Texans 23
Final: Texans, 28-22
Week 14: Chiefs 27, Patriots 20
Final: Chiefs 23, Patriots 16
Week 15: Patriots 19, Bengals 6
Final: Patriots 34, Bengals 13
Week 16: Bills 16, Patriots 9
Final: Patriots 24, Bills 17
Week 17: Patriots 30, Dolphins 20
Final: Dolphins 27, Patriots 24