The New England Patriots head into Divisional playoff weekend as the heavy favorites at home against the Tennessee Titans. It seems as if every football fan out there has already written off a potential Tennessee upset. However, this is a Titans team that has defied the odds over the past two weeks. Tennessee, remember, needed to win in Week 17, against a top contender no less (Jacksonville), just to punch their ticket to the postseason. Then, they would go on to complete one of the largest comebacks in playoff history against Kansas City in one of the most hostile environments in all of professional football.
With that being said, New England should still be able to fend off Marcus Mariota and Co. Tom Brady has had another spectacular year at the helm for Bill Belichick. The Patriots have suffered some serious injuries this season, but still found their way to a 13-3 record in the regular season and a first-round playoff bye.
Here is a look at, what I feel, is the most simple formula for the Patriots to defeat Tennessee on Saturday and advance to the AFC Championship Game…
Let Tom Brady be Tom Brady
The Tennessee Titans are the fourth best defense against the run this year. Unfortunately for them, they have not been quite as successful when it comes to defending opposing arms (25th ranked passing defense). For New England it’s just a matter of making this game a battle between two quarterbacks. I think we all know who is going to win that battle 99.99% of the time (Hint: The answer’s Tom Brady). TB12 has thrown 30+ passes in all but three games this season. Sure, if things get out of hand, Josh McDaniels should dial up the run to keep Brady healthy, but don’t over complicate things if you’re the Patriots. After all, this is the playoffs and this is Tom Brady. Let the man do what he does better than anybody, ever…win playoff games.
Take care of the football
The turnover differential can often decide football games. In the playoffs, where every possession is treated like gold, it is important to make sure you protect the ball at all times. Of course, this is not a concern with Tom Brady, who posted an impressive 4:1 TD to INT ratio in the regular season. Nevertheless, Titans’ All-Pro safety Kevin Byard tied for the league lead with eight interceptions on the 2017 campaign. Rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and outside linebacker Brian Orakpo forced three fumbles, each, this year. Therefore, it is paramount that New England ball carriers take care of the football. The Pats will want to keep their defense off the field and keep Tom Brady on it.
Get RBs involved in the passing game
This, of course, has never been a problem for the Patriots. Running backs have always been a staple in this team’s passing offense. James White caught 72 balls this year out of the backfield, ninth best in the league. Rex Burkhead had eight receiving touchdowns, which was the best in the NFL for a running back, before he went down with an injury in Week 15. He is slated to return to action this weekend and will undoubtedly be a factor in these playoffs for New England. Dion Lewis is another talented receiving-back for the Pats. If the Titans hold him at bay in the running game, don’t be surprised if Lewis starts burning them with his receiving ability. The Titans’ defense was the worst unit this year at defending pass-catching. This is a big mismatch heading into Saturday’s tilt. Advantage: New England.
Stop Derrick Henry
The former Heisman Trophy winner has starred in the running game for Tennessee in recent weeks with DeMarco Murray sidelined with a knee injury. Henry scored the game-winning touchdown versus Jacksonville two weeks ago to clinch a playoff spot for the Titans. The following week he would rip the Kansas City Chiefs for 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 totes. New England’s front seven must contain Henry as he is the key to this Tennessee offense. The Patriots rank 20th in the league at stopping the run. It will take a combined effort from Alan Branch (back from injury), Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and others to keep Henry contained. The Titans have lost their last three games in which Mariota threw 30 or more passes.
Contain Delanie Walker
Delanie Walker is Mr. Reliable for this Tennessee offense. He caught 20 more balls (74) than the next closest receiver on his team. He ranked fourth-best in the NFL among tight ends in both catches and receiving yards (807). He will most likely draw lots of coverage from safety Patrick Chung, who has had success against tight ends this season. Chung allowed 32 catches for 320 yards and two touchdowns against the position this season. It’s all about containment for Matt Patricia’s defense. Walker is going to get his targets; just be sure those targets don’t result in a monster game for the 2x Pro-Bowler.
Hold TEN to field goals
The red zone needs to continue being a strength for this defensive unit. For as bad as they have been at times this season, the Patriots’ defense has actually had success in the red zone. New England ranks fourth in touchdown percentage (43.75%) in this area of the field. If they can continue to hold their opponents to field goals rather than scores, and put the ball back in Tom Brady’s hands, that spells trouble for their opponents. Trading field goals for touchdowns is a useful strategy. Bend, but don’t break.