On Saturday, the Titans will face the defending Super Bowl Champions on Wild Card Weekend. The New England Patriots have looked a bit uncharacteristic this season but their defense has been dominant.
The Patriots defense ranks 1st in turnovers forced, yards per game, and points per game. They gave up an average of 7.6 points through the first 8 games but that number jumped all the way to 20.5 in weeks 9-16.
The Patriots offense has been criticized throughout the season. Tom Brady has had a below average season but the Patriots offense is 8th in passing and 15th in scoring. These rankings could be better but they are not as terrible as many people say. It appeared that the Pats offense was holding them back for most of the season though the Week 17 loss to the Dolphins was a result of poor defense. Tom Brady did throw a pick 6 but the defense gave up 20 additional points.
Since taking over, the Titans have been one of the most dominant offenses in the NFL. The Titans have the best passer in the NFL, leading rusher, and offensive rookie of the year. QB Ryan Tannehill has turned this team around though much of his success is a result of the offensive line playing better and a strong run game. At 2-4, when Tannehill took over, nobody expected him to take the Titans to the playoffs. The even crazier part is that many people think the Titans could win this game, in large part because of Tannehill.
Ryan Tannehill spent the first 7 seasons of his career with the Miami Dolphins, in the AFC East. In his career with the Dolphins, Tannehill has beat the Patriots 4 times though he is 0-6 in New England. This is very favorable to the Titans because Tannehill has a lot of experience against Tom Brady and the Patriots. Saturday will be Tannehill’s first playoff game but I think he will overcome the nerves and play another great game.
The Patriots are currently 5 point favorites primarily because of their playoff experience. The Titans are on such a hot streak that many people are picking the Titans in this game. There are a few advantages and disadvantages that the Titans have in Saturday’s matchup:
One Advantage the Titans have is their explosive offense. The Titans have three extremely dominant players that have been on a roll lately. Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and AJ Brown have been the root of the Titans success recently. In last seasons matchup, Patriots top corner, Stephon Gilmore, covered Corey Davis throughout the game. Davis ended the game with 125 yards and a touchdown and caught 7 passes. With rookie AJ Brown emerging as the Titans top target, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots decide to cover both Davis and Brown. In 2017’s divisional round game, Patriots coach, Bill Belichick, committed to stopping Derrick Henry because the Titans passing offense was not very strong. If Belichick were to do the same this week, the Titans would roast them in the passing game. I think Davis could make some plays on Saturday as well as Jonnu Smith. This Titans offense is very balanced unlike past seasons and it will be very difficult for the Patriots to stop.
A disadvantage may be pass protection and the ability to open holes for Derrick Henry. The Titans 2-4 start was in part because of the poor play of the offensive line. The Patriots have a pretty good pass rush and a strong overall defense, putting more pressure than normal on the offensive line. With running the ball being the key to the Titans offense, the play of the offensive line will be paramount on Saturday.
Playing a team with the experience and success the Patriots have will be extremely difficult, especially in the playoffs. My keys to the game:
1. Run the Ball
No matter the opponent, running the ball is always a key because the Titans have Derrick Henry. When Derrick Henry rushed for over 90 yards, the Titans are 7-0 and the offense is much improved. Ryan Tannehill is the most efficient play action passer in the NFL because of the run game and its success. The Titans need to get Henry outside because that is where most of his success comes:
Henry turns seemingly broken plays into gains but he is most efficient while running outside. Henry is known by the national media as a strong runner who can only lower his head, while in reality, he is elusive. In the open field, Henry has the ability to out-run linebackers and make moves. Derrick Henry against the Patriots defense will be a very interesting matchup to watch.
2. Lock Down in the secondary
Over the past 6 weeks, the Titans secondary has been injured and as a result, they have not played that well. Adoree' Jackson is returning from injury this week which is huge and helps the secondary immensely. The secondary made AJ McCarron look like a starter last week and they are now playing the greatest Quarterback of all time. Tom Brady does not have the targets he has had in the past which works in favor of the secondary.
3. Get pressure on Tom Brady
Last season, when the Titans beat the Patriots convincingly, they were successful because they got pressure on the Quarterback. Tom Brady is not the speediest quarterback and pressure can greatly help the defense. Pressure on the Quarterback directly correlates to the play of the secondary. When Brady has less time to get the ball out, the secondary will not have to cover for as long. Defensive backs such as Logan Ryan and Kenny Vaccaro will also be able to contribute to the pressure as defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, often mixes up the pressure.
4. Execute on Special Teams
While two of the Titans regular season games were won because of Special Teams, at least two were also lost. The Titans kicking has been worst in the NFL and they ended the season with a field goal percentage of 44%. Lets hope the game does not come down to kicking because current kicker, Greg Joseph, has looked a bit shaky on extra points and he has not yet attempted a field goal. Kicking has not been the only problem for the Titans. The Titans have a list of injured returners and in practice, AJ Brown was fielding punts. The Titans rank 18th in kickoff returns and 30th in punt returns and injuries are not helping. The Titans brought back KR/WR Darius Jennings after cutting him earlier in the season and they signed PR/WR Rashard Davis from the practice squad. The Patriots have been one of the best teams on Special Teams and they have forced a lot of turnovers. The Titans must execute on special teams and avoid giving the Patriots easy points.
These teams stack up very evenly and I think the Titans will manage to win the game. The Titans have a lot working against them but so do the Patriots. This game will be extremely tight but I think the Titans offense is good enough to take on the NFL’s leading defense.
I am predicting a 28-26 Titans win and I think it will come down to the wire, with Tom Brady having a chance to win the game. This Titans team appears to have a much higher ceiling than past teams and this offense has the ability to lead the Titans on a playoff run.