The AFC Divisional Round kicks off on Saturday as the Tennessee Titans head north to take on the New England Patriots. This will be the 42nd meeting between these old AFL rivals with the Patriots having the all-time series lead at 24-16-1. The last time these two franchises met in the playoffs was in January of 2004 when the Patriots beat the Titan 17-14 in one of the coldest games in Patriots history.
The Titans enter this game after a shocking upset of Kansas City Chiefs on Wildcard Weekend. Down by 18 points at the start of the third quarter, Tennessee rallied back behind the power running of Derrick Henry and some incredibly clutch plays by Marcus Mariota. While some of the outcome of this game lies on the poor play calling of Andy Reid and the Chiefs, certainly the Titan deserve credit for battling all the way to the end and finding a way to win.
New England, on the other hand, spend their bye week mired in a media stoked controversy revolving around a supposed internal power struggle within the franchise. While there may be some truths buried in the reports, no team has thrived in the face of adversity like the Patriots. With a week to practice, rest, and prepare, New England certainly will be ready to take the field on Saturday night.
A trip to the AFC Championship Game is on the line so in yet another futile attempt to be non-bias and analytical, both teams were broken down in key areas to see how they will match up against each other and which one may have the key to a victory.
Quarterback – PATRIOTS: The Titans’ Marcus Mariota had an excellent playoff debut highlighting his ability to not only run with the football but to make critical throws when there was very little margin for error. However, the Patriots Tom Brady will be making his 35th playoff start (25-9) and will be certainly motivated after a week of media scrutiny.
Running Backs – PATRIOTS: Tennessee’s Derrick Henry has shouldered the rushing load since teammate DeMarco Murray went down with an injured knee a few weeks ago. While Henry is the type of back that can keep getting stronger as the game wears on, the Patriots’ running back stable will be back to near full strength which should provide matchup problems all over the field.
Wide Receivers – PATRIOTS: While the Titans’ Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker lead an above average group of wide receivers, the Patriots wide outs have been significantly more productive throughout the course of the season. New England hopes to have Chris Hogan return who has been recovering from a shoulder injury.
Tight Ends – PATRIOTS: This game features two of the better AFC Tight Ends in the Titans’ Delanie Walker and the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski. However, Gronkowski single handedly has outperformed the Titans’ TE group in yards and touchdowns.
Offensive Line – PUSH: Both teams offensive lines are statistically even in both pass blocking and run blocking.
Defensive Front Seven – TITANS: Both teams are virtually identical in their ability to sack opposing quarterbacks. The Titans have complied 43 sacks (5th in the league) while the Patriots have totaled 42 (tied for 7th in the league). However, Tennessee allowed the 4th fewest rushing yards in the NFL which is significantly better than New England’s make shift line. The potential return of Alan Branch may help New England but it has to be seen how effective he will be. It will also be interesting to see how the Patriots James Harrison is utilized in what would be only his second game since joining the Patriots. Harrison had a surprisingly strong debut against the Jets two weeks ago so there is some optimism on what he can add on passing downs.
Secondary – PUSH: Statistically, this game will feature the two worst defensive secondary units left in the playoffs. While the Patriots have made some strides in improving over the course of the season, inconsistent play has still plagued this group.
Special Teams – PATRIOTS: The return games, both kickoff and punt, have been virtually identical between the two teams. The real separation comes from the difference in the kickers where Stephen Gostkowski has been more accurate throughout the course of the season compared to the Titans Ryan Succop.
Coaching – PATRIOTS: Last week, as the Chiefs/Titans game was kicking off, there were multiple reports surfacing that Tennessee’s Mike Mularkey would be fired if the Titans lost against Kansas City. Though the Titans won and Mularkey received the dreaded “Vote of Confidence” by the owner, it’s hard to believe that if the Titans lose on Saturday, there won’t be some major changes within that organization.
If we assign 2 points for every category (1 point per team for draws) this is how it lines up:
Key’s to a Patriots Victory:
1) Team Focus: There has been a tremendous amount of noise surrounding the Patriots over the last week that would normally be a major distraction. However New England has always been masterful in using outside controversy to bring their team together. With a chance to play in another AFC Championship game, the Patriots’ players and coaches need to focus on the task at hand and not overlook an opponent that is inferior on paper.
2) The Running Backs are Back….Use Them: With the possible return of both James White and Rex Burkhead, the Patriots are back to full strength in their backfield. As much as it would be great to see Tom Brady throw the ball all over the yard, the Patriots need to utilize the running backs to keep the hit on Brady to a minimum.
3) Stay Aggressive: After seeing Kansas City’s 18 point lead evaporate last week, the Patriots should enter this game being aware that the Titans will not be an easy out. If the Patriots do end up taking a big lead, they need to stay aggressive to ensure not to let Tennessee back into the game with conservative play calling or sloppy play.
After a week of controversy the Patriots should feel relieved to get back on the field and actually play a game. The real issue for the Patriots this week is not taking the Tennessee Titans seriously enough and looking ahead to the expected matchup with the Steelers next week.
Expect a closer than expected game for most of the evening with the Patriots pulling away late in the 4th Quarter.
The Knuckles Prediction: Patriots 27 – Titans 17