Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. The Tennessee Titans pay a visit to the defending champion New England Patriots house in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The Titans are nearly two-touchdown underdogs going into Gillette Stadium. It won’t be easy to defeat the top-seeded Patriots in this their eighth consecutive season in the divisional round.
Earlier this week, Managing Editors Mike D’Abate (FPC Patriots) and Dean Williams (FPC Titans) sat down to discuss this matchup.
Here, Mike D’Abate shares his insight on the Patriots perspective.
DW: The Patriots defense has been maligned all season but they wind up 5th in scoring defense. Can you point at a specific time where the defense turned it around?
MD: In 2017, the Patriots have employed a classic ‘bend, but don’t break’ defense. They will surrender yards but seem to find a way to keep teams out of the end zone. At least, that’s the way it has been in the second half of the season. This is a defense that began this year surrendering 42 points to Kansas City, 33 points to Houston, and 33 to Carolina. For me, the turning point seemed to occur during Week Seven at home against the Falcons. Despite Atlanta’s struggles early on, they still have a prolific offense. The Pats were able to get pressure on Matt Ryan and tighten up their run defense. That brought their confidence back and showed the Patriots that they still had the skill to stifle a top-flight offense. There are still weaknesses there. However, when at its peak, the Patriots can match-up with the league’s most potent offenses. They will need to be VERY good on Saturday. Tennessee has weapons and these Titans will be ready.
DW: Do you think the latest round of “the sky is falling” stories from ESPN has distracted the Patriots or has it been a unifying factor?
MD: I honestly believe that it will neither add to nor detract from the Patriots focus on Saturday. This is a team that has been to the mountaintop several times, and they have dealt with outside noise before. The trio of Kraft, Brady and Belichick value winning above all other exaggerations and character attacks. It is ironic that this type of ‘noise’ seems to generate from Bristol, CT, more often than not. But… I digress. If it does motivate anyone, it will most likely be Tom Brady. The Pats QB was not painted in the most flattering of light in this story. If he’s angry, that could bode well for the Patriots offense. At the end of the day, however, it’s the Playoffs. The Titans and Patriots will be equally motivated to play a great game…and that’s exactly what I think we will see on Saturday.
DW: Derrick Henry is a battering ram. Marcus Mariota is an agile quarterback. How will the Patriots attack the problem of stopping them?
MD: Derrick Henry’s size, speed, and agility make him one of the most dangerous threats on an NFL football field. He certainly isn’t built like a running back. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he’ll be the biggest back the Patriots have faced this season. Patriots linebacker Marquis Flowers, whose speed has helped him emerge as a starter in recent weeks, may be essential in stopping Henry. But at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Flowers is actually shorter and lighter than Henry. Both Flowers and DT Ricky Jean-Francois compared tackling Henry to bringing down a defensive end. The key is getting to him early. It all comes down to fundamentals It will be a tough task.
MD: As for Marcus Mariota, Bill Belichick is known for giving young quarterbacks fits, both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The front seven, particularly the defensive ends, will need to play their best game of the season if they hope to contain Mariota. The best bet for the Patriots would be to let Mariota try to beat them through the air. If they can confuse Mariota at the line of scrimmage, they might be able to throw him off his game.
DW: Who do you see as the key or keys for the Patriots in Saturday’s game?
MD: On offense, the O-Line must protect its quarterback. Tom Brady has been sacked 35 times this season, which was tied for 9th in the NFL. In all fairness, the offensive line has not been terrible. However, this is the playoffs. Brady is 40 years of age. If the Titans defenders can keep Brady on the move by applying consistent pressure, then this could be a much different game than people are expecting. Titans safety Kevin Byard recently said that he wants to make Brady look like Blake Bortles. I think that’s a bit of wishful thinking, on his part. However, he might just get his wish of snagging an interception if Brady is forced to make bad throws. To me, Brady’s ability to buy time in the pocket is the key to this game.
DW: What is your prediction for the game?
MD: This will be a closer game than most people think. Tennessee has a lot of weapons and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They will surprise people and get some points on the board. That being said, it is a lot to expect such a young team to come into Gillette Stadium and defeat the defending champions. In the end, the Patriots wealth of playmakers will be a bit too much for the Titans to overcome. The Pats take this one 24-17 and advance to the AFC Championship Game.