Tennessee Titans (10-7) at New England Patriots (13-3)
Saturday, January 13th , 8:15 PM EST.
In the NFC, the top seeded Eagles will be playing without their MVP candidate quarterback. The top-seeded Patriots have no such issues. Forty-year- old Tom Brady led the league in passing this season, despite a league-high thirty drops from his receivers. Brady’s last few weeks haven’t been his best of the season statistically, and some folks are thinking that Father Time has caught up to the oldest signal-caller in the game. Or, perhaps, the internal strife between Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft has the greatest quarterback of all time off of his game.
Let’s just calm down a little bit there, Patriot-haters and hot-takers.
First off, the Patriots have won eleven of their last twelve games and are tied for the highest point differential in the league. The Patriots don’t have a single game plan when it comes to offense. They, better than any team in history, game plan for, and exploit, the defensive weaknesses of opposing teams. The run heavy sets that the Patriots have used the last few weeks will be gone as Brady will be looking to pick apart a vulnerable Titans secondary that allows well over two hundred passing yards per game.
Secondly, the Patriots didn’t need the motivation of Seth Wickersham’s ESPN piece claiming internal discord was rampant in Foxboro to get motivated for the playoffs, but it probably won’t hurt them much. Bill Belichick’s teams are exceptionally good at turning bulletin board material into checkmarks in the win column. Coming off the bye, and welcoming back receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, the Patriots will be more than ready to go.
Tennessee mustered an impressive comeback against Kansas City to advance this far. They’re still without starting RB DeMarco Murray, so the load will be on Derrick Henry again. Let’s assume that he brings his A-game to Foxboro this weekend. They’ll need a few more things to happen to make this more daunting upset a reality.
First off, the Titans will need a huge, huge game out of Marcus Mariota. That will mean not only scrambling a little bit to extend plays. He’ll likely need to go for blood on a few designed QB runs. The Patriots aren’t great at defending sporadic QB rushes. If the Mariota can do what Blake Bortles did to the Bills on the ground (88 yards rushing), it will unbalance the defense and lead to some opportunities in the passing game. Speaking of the passing game, Mariota will need to do something he’s had trouble with all season. He’ll need to play clean. Any turnovers by Mariota would likely spell the end, and Mariota has thrown more interceptions (15) this season than touchdowns (13).
Secondly, the Titans pass rush will need to work some magic to make Brady uncomfortable, and they’ll need to be quick about it. The Titans secondary is porous, so if Brady and the Patriots have a few seconds to survey the field on every play, this thing could get out of hand quickly. The Titans need to flush Brady out and make him move side to side. If he has the luxury of standing clean, or simply stepping up into the pocket with regularity, there’s not going to be much the Titans can do the stop the Patriots from moving up and down the field at will.
Even if all of that goes right for Tennessee, they’ll likely need some last minute magic from Mariota to escape from Foxboro with a win.
I just can’t see all of that happening unless something really is rotten in Foxboro.
Image source: twitter.com/titans
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.