The New England Patriots spent Wild Card weekend on the couch for the eighth straight year. This season marks the eighth straight year that the Patriots will host a Divisional Playoff game, adding to their NFL record. The Patriots will face off against the Tennessee Titans in Foxboro, MA at Gillette Stadium on Saturday, January 13, at 8:15 p.m.
The Titans are an unlikely opponent as they stumbled into the playoffs losing three straight games before fending off Jacksonville in week 17 to sneak in as a Wild Card. They upset the Chiefs in Kansas City on Saturday 22-21 erasing a 21-3 halftime deficit. Quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry led the way on offense.
Head coach Mike Mularkey is no stranger to the Patriots, but he is a career 0-6 against Bill Belichick. The Patriots have won six consecutive games against the Titans including a 33-16 win in 2015, but although it was two years ago, both teams have made major changes. On offense, the Patriots have just four starters left from that 2015 match-up and just five starters left on defense.
To put it in perspective, Joey Iosefa led New England in rushing yards that game and Jamie Collins made the big defensive play. For the Titans, Antonio Andrews was the leading rusher and Dorial Green-Beckham was their leading receiver.
This week’s match-up will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston and WPRI 12 in Providence and Southeastern New England. Jim Nantz will once again handle play-by-play duties with Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.
On the radio, this week’s game will be broadcast to a national audience by WESTWOOD ONE. Kevin Kugler and former Miami Dolphins’ Hall of Fame edge rusher Jason Taylor will call the game with Hub Arkush providing sideline analysis. Locally, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways in the playoffs against the Tennessee Titans or if Marcus Mariota will pull off the upset.
1. NE G Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney vs TEN DT Jurrell Casey
The Tennessee Titans have pounded their way into the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs on the back of their strong defense. Only 17th in the NFL in points allowed, the Titans have only allowed more than 27 points in just two games this season (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Tennessee was fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed (1,420 yards and 3.6 yards per rush average) and led the league with just five touchdowns allowed.
A big part of the run defense has been 3-4 defensive end, Jurrell Casey. Casey is best known for having blasted the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles in the press saying he was “going to choke” in the playoffs. Forget all that. Casey is one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL that most fans have never heard of despite earning his third consecutive Pro Bowl nod.
Casey is a beast on the interior and difficult to block. He is excellent against the run, disrupting the running plays with penetration while smartly staying in control and not over-pursuing the backs. He is big and strong, but explosive and with a quick first step and excellent technique.
In the passing game, he collapses the pocket and disrupts opposing pass offenses with his ability to penetrate and pressure the quarterback. He had six sacks in 2017 and that was his fifth straight season with five or more sacks. The Patriots will need to be aware of Casey and where number 99 is lined up along the defensive line. Guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason will see the most of Casey and need to be on top of their game. Center David Andrews may have to help out or battle Casey but he will be busy with former Broncos nose tackle Sylvester Williams.
Inside pressure is the kryptonite to Tom Brady and Jurrell Casey is capable of collapsing the pocket and keeping Brady from stepping up and finding a receiver. If New England is going to find the holes in the Tennessee secondary, it is up to the interior offensive line to stop the biggest threat to the offensive game plan.
This is not a good match-up for the Patriots: Thuney has struggled in pass protection this season and the Titans will likely try to isolate Casey on him. Thuney not only has to stop a strong pass rusher but also keep him from using his strength to collapse the pocket and not allow Brady to get comfortable in the pocket.
2. NE QB Tom Brady vs TEN S Kevin Byard
When quarterback Tom Brady gets protection to pass, he is still going to have to watch for a pair of ballhawks in the secondary for Tennessee. The Titans play a lot of zone and they have a solid pair of safeties in All-Pro Kevin Byard and Jonathan Cyprien.
Byard has made news with his mouth this week talking about how he wants to make Tom Brady “look like Blake Bortles if I can and try to catch a couple picks.” In his second season, Byard has thrust himself into the spotlight with an NFL leading eight interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Reviewing the game tape shows Byard has been spending a lot of time this season playing over-the-top of rookie cornerback Adoree’ Jackson.
Byard also shows excellent speed, great range, an instinct to go for the ball on deep passes, good hands and awareness to grab tipped and overthrown passes, strong tackling in the open field and an advanced understanding of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s zone concepts.
Byard will have to do more than help Jackson and the cornerbacks keep fleet wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett from beating them deep. In fact, he will have to read and react to quarterback Tom Brady as he surveys his receivers downfield. Byard needs to use his smarts and athleticism to get to the football and keep the New England offense from picking up chunk plays.
For Brady, he needs to locate Byard and use his eyes to look him off receivers. Despite all of the attributes for Byard, he is only in his second season and of his eight interceptions, this season one was off of rookie DeShaun Watson (in his second career start), two off rookie DeShone Kizer, oneoff of Cody Kessler, two off Joe Flacco, and two off Blake Bortles. While his first career interception off of Watson is one for the trophy case, Kizer, Kessler, Flacco, and Bortles were some of the worst quarterbacks this season.
The Titans have struggled against top-flite quarterbacks this season as Derek Carr (22 of 32 for 262 and two touchdowns), Russell Wilson (29 of 49 for 373 yards and four touchdowns), Watson (25 of 34 for 283 yards and four touchdowns with one interception), Andy Dalton (20 of 35 for 265 yards and two touchdowns), Ben Roethlisberger (30 of 45 for 299 yards and four touchdowns), Jimmy Garoppolo (31 of 43 for 381 yards and one touchdown), and Jared Goff (22 of 38 for 301 yards and four touchdowns) all had strong performances through the air against Tennessee.
Why are the Titans not at the bottom of the league in passing defense? Well, they are. They finished the season 25th in the NFL in passing yards allowed with 3,828 yards, 24th in passing touchdowns with 27 allowed, and despite Byard’s eight interceptions, the Titans only had four other interceptions and starting cornerbacks Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson and starting strong safety Jonathan Cyprien combining for a grand total of…zero interceptions.
The Titans pulled out strong games in pass defense against Bortles (twice), Jay Cutler, Jacoby Brissett, Kizer and Kessler, Tom Savage (kind of…they did give up 365 yards passing to him) and Blaine Gabbert. It makes less sense how they shut down the Chiefs in the second half of the Wild Card match-up last weekend.
The Chiefs clearly missed tight end Travis Kelce who had four receptions on four targets for 66 yards and a touchdown before leaving due to injury. There may be a lot of open space in the zone defense for tight end Rob Gronkowski on Saturday night. In reviewing the tape, Smith missed on passes to secondary targets Albert Wilson, Orson Charles and Demetrius Harris as the Titans tightened up coverage on Tyreek Hill with Byard staying on top of him and the linebackers keying on Kareem Hunt and Charcandrick West out of the backfield.
With the Titans having to keep Byard on top of deep threat Brandin Cooks (like with Tyreek Hill last week), the Patriots will be able to stretch the zone defense with Rob Gronkowski in the middle of the field (like the Chiefs did with Kelce last week). New England will be able to keep the linebackers shallow defending running backs James White, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis out of the backfield. Danny Amendola and, if healthy, Chris Hogan could have a big game with space open for intermediate crossing routes in the middle of the field if Brady has time to throw.
3. NE DE Trey Flowers and James Harrison vs TEN T Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin
The New England Patriots have been criticized all season for their lack of pass rush. While some of that can be play design, some of that is due to not having one big-time pass-rushing defensive end. However, as a team defense, the Patriots have been able to generate pressure at times and their defense has been excellent at finishing pressure by picking up sacks when they get near the opposing quarterback.
Think of teams with excellent individual pass rushers like Arizona (Chandler Jones), Denver (Von Miller), Oakland (Khalil Mack), Cincinnati (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap), Philadelphia (Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long), Seattle (Michael Bennett and Frank Clark), Miami (Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake), and Houston (Jadeveon Clowney) to name a few, the New England defense topped them all with 42 sacks this season. Trey Flowers led the team with 6.5 sacks but the defense had 10 players with at least two sacks in 2017.
Against Tennessee, the Patriots are going to keep the reins on their defensive ends. With a quarterback like Marcus Mariota who can extend and make plays with his legs, the Patriots are going to game-plan to keep him in the pocket. Defensive end Trey Flowers, newcomer James Harrison, and young players Eric King and Deatrich Wise will be tasked with setting the edge not just in the running game but in the passing game. The goal is to force Mariota to stay in the pocket and run for first downs or get outside the pocket and make plays downfield.
The Patriots will also have to be disciplined against the run. While Derrick Henry may not be a big runner around the end, he did have five rushes for 51 yards against the Chiefs around the left and right ends. Setting the edge is a priority to keep the Titans running backs and quarterback from getting outside to the edge for big plays.
The problem with planning to set the edge and pressure the quarterback is going against the Titans’ pair of offensive tackles. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was voted to the Pro Bowl and is one of the dominant tackles in the league with his ability to road-grade in run-blocking and hold his own in pass-blocking. He has cleared-up his issues with holding penalties from last year. The problem has been the right tackle, Jack Conklin.
Conklin had a tremendous rookie season in 2016 and was dynamite run-blocking for Demarco Murray and more than held his own in pass-blocking. This season, he has been a liability with his holding penalties negating some big plays and struggles in run-blocking. In fact, as much as the Titans ran the ball last week against Kansas City, they ran Henry up-the-middle (12 rushes for 83 yards) and to the left (10 rushes for 70 yards) and only one time to the right (one rush for three yards).
New England needs their edge pass rushers to hold their own against Lewan and take advantage of the struggles of Conklin. Trey Flowers and James Harrison will have a key role in trying to slow the Titans run-based offense and not allow them to set-up play-action passing.
4. NE ILB Kyle Van Noy vs TEN RB Derrick Henry
The Titans’ offense got great news on Wednesday when running back DeMarco Murray. Not a knock on Murray, who has been dinged-up and played slowly in 2017, but the offense functions best with smash-mouth running back Derrick Henry behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. Murray struggled as he approaches age 30 and averaged just 3.6 yards per rush and had just one game with 70 or more yards rushing (week three versus Seattle).
The Titans call their rushing attack an “exotic smashmouth” scheme. What does that mean? The best explanation I have seen is from ProFootballFocus.com which described it as “formational unpredictability, run-heavy play calling, and simple pass attack with emphasis on avoiding pressure. The Titans line up in a number of looks, run the ball using multiple tight ends, and when they pass, do not throw downfield often.
The running game took a step backward in 2017 while the team enjoyed more success than they had in 2016. Part of the reason is the offensive line taking a step backward, particularly right guard Josh Kline and right tackle Jack Conklin. Another problem was the aforementioned decline of veteran running back DeMarco Murray this season.
Derrick Henry turned in a strong performance against Kansas City with 156 yards rushing on 23 carries. The second-year back had seemingly hit a lull with just 115 yards rushing on 51 carries and one touchdown over the last four games of the regular season. Part of the renaissance was playing the Chiefs and their 25th ranked rushing defense.
Henry had just 42 yards at halftime on ten carries before exploding in the second half of the game for 114 yards on 13 carries. The Chiefs lost defensive tackle Chris Jones to a torn MCL injury on the first play of the second half. After he went down the Chiefs’ best run stopper was gone and backup Jarvis Jenkins failed to impress stepping in.
The New England rush defense has not been a strength in 2017 as they have allowed 1,836 yards rushing, which was good for 20th in the league. In addition, they allowed opponents to rush for 4.7 yards per rush which was the second worst in the NFL. Oddly enough, they only allowed six rushing touchdowns which was second best in the league.
One reason for the discrepancy is that the Patriots have spent much of their time on defense in nickel or dime defenses with an extra defensive back or two. Those light fronts allow for opponents to run the football. However, inside the red zone, the Patriots use a heavier front with a more traditional front seven and have been effective stopping the run in those situations. Per TeamRankings.com, the Patriots are fourth best in the NFL in opponent red zone touchdown scoring percentage allowing touchdowns on just 43.75% of their drives.
New England also gets its best run defender back with veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch expected back from his knee injury which has sidelined him since he was injured against the Dolphins in week fourteen on Monday night. Adding Branch gives New England a fresh pair of legs to rotate in with Malcolm Brown and Lawrence Guy on the interior defensive line (Adam Butler primarily plays on passing downs).
New England also should get inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy back against Tennessee. Van Noy has missed a month with a calf injury, despite not playing in the last three games of the season. He played a key role stepping in for Dont’a Hightower after he went on injured reserve.
Van Noy is key as he has been a versatile piece. He can cover running backs and tight ends in man-coverage and blitz from the edge or up the A gap. However, his speed and explosiveness filling lanes make him a weapon against the run. He is a sure tackler and has the size and strength (six-foot-three and 243 pounds) to take on and take down the massive Derrick Henry (six-foot-three and 247 pounds).
5. NE S Patrick Chung vs TEN TE Delanie Walker
Of course, against Kansas City last week they dumped the “exotic smashmouth” in the second half of the game and went primarily with three wide receivers and one tight end. The Titans ran Derrick Henry just ten times before their final drive trying to run out the clock while Marcus Mariota threw the ball 18 times. Surprisingly, the offense was more effective than they had been when they let Mariota call and change plays while dictating the pace and tempo.
When the Titans throw the ball, their top target has been tight end, Delanie Walker. Walker led the team with 111 targets, 74 receptions, 807 yards and was second on the team to Rishard Matthews with three touchdowns. Walker led the way last week against the Chiefs with eight targets and six receptions for 74 yards.
The Titans often pair Walker with rookie third-round draft pick Jonnu Smith in dual tight-end looks. While most teams lean heavily on their wide receivers, the Titans lean on last season’s veteran free agent signing and former Miami Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews, this season’s veteran free agent signing and former New York Jets and Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, and rookie 5th overall first-round draft pick Corey Davis. Unfortunately for Tennessee, all three receivers have underachieved in 2017.
Walker is long in the tooth at age 33 but played little in his first seven seasons in the league while with the 49ers backing up Vernon Davis. After signing as a free agent in Tennessee in 2013, he has come into his own as a primary target. He has had 60 or more receptions in all five of his seasons in Tennessee and has one 1,000 yard receiving season and three other years with more than 800 yards receiving including this season.
Walker is not a massive target like Rob Gronkowski and is just six-foot-one and 245 pounds. However, he is athletic and can run routes down the field to make big plays. He is a mismatch against safeties and linebackers due to his speed and smaller cornerbacks are overpowered by the strong tight end.
The Patriots are in the middle of the pack defending against tight ends and are 19th in receptions allowed by tight ends with 74, but ninth in yards allowed with just 720 yards and allowed just five receiving touchdowns per rotowire.com. In week 17 versus the Jets, the Patriots allowed five receptions for 74 yards to Neal Sterling, which was the most yards allowed to any individual tight end. In their first match-up against the Jets, Austin Seferian-Jenkins had eight receptions (for only 46 yards) for the most receptions by a tight end.
Most interesting was that New England allowed five receiving touchdowns to tight ends, but none since week six. In their last ten games, no tight end had a receiving touchdown against the Patriots. Once New England tightened down their secondary and pass defense starting with their 23-7 win over the Falcons, the Patriots shut down the tight ends. Remember, the Patriots gave up over 290 total passing yards (and five of 300 or more) in their first six games and then no more held nine of their final ten opponents to 242 total passing yards or less (with the Steelers explosive offense with just 270 total passing yards).
While the entire secondary improved after the first six weeks, an underrated improvement came from strong safety Patrick Chung. Chung and his unique athleticism struggled at free safety in his first go-round in New England. Coming back, Chung plays more in the box and more in coverage of tight ends and running backs (and occasionally wide receivers).
According to Jeff Howe of BostonHerald.com, Chung held tight ends to 22 receptions on 38 targets (57.9 completion percentage) for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and he had an interception and two pass breakups. That’s an average of 1.4 catches for 14.4 yards per game when they’ve been glued to Chung.
Chung will have his hands full with Delanie Walker this Saturday night as the Titans’ leading receiver is his biggest test since week one against Travis Kelce. If Chung is able to take Walker out of the game, it would go a long way towards slowing the Titans offense.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01.