The New England Patriots will host the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night (Jan. 4) in Foxborough, MA. This is just the fourth time in the Brady-Belichick era that the Patriots have played in the Wild Card round. They went 2-1 in their previous three appearances. This game will be the second meeting between Bill Belichick and his former player, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel. Vrabel played linebacker for the Patriots from 2001-2010, winning three Superbowls. Mike Vrabel got the best of Belichick in last year’s week 10 match-up when his Titans beat the Patriots 34-10. This game will have much higher stakes. The game will kickoff at 8:15 pm with temperatures around 42° F with a chance of rain throughout the night.
The Patriots head into the playoffs this year with more question marks than usual. They come into this match-up losing 3 of their last 5 including an embarrassing home loss to the Dolphins last week. This loss knocked them into the 3 seed, costing them a first round bye. The Patriots boasted one of the best defenses in the league this year, but experts on sold on them being a Superbowl contender. The questions this year surround Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Brady averaged just 217 passing yards per game since the week 10 bye, compared to 282 yards per game prior. The Patriots team are averaging just 21 points per game since the bye compared to 30 points per game prior*.
Many are attributing this decline in offensive production to a lack of receiving options for Brady as well as Tom Brady showing signs of aging. Tom Brady posted the 4th worst completion percentage of his career this year (60.8%) and the worst QBR (Quarterback Rating) of his career (52.5)*. Experts have speculated this may be Tom Brady’s last season in New England, and maybe last of his career. Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports writes: “We just don’t know what might happen, and that’s what makes this home playoff game unique.
There hasn’t been any level of uncertainty about Brady’s future before. Even if it’s a long shot that Brady goes elsewhere, the chance is higher than ever before.” Father time is undefeated, and it will eventually come for Brady, but the Patriots have been counted out before and yet they always seem to find a way to win in the playoffs.
With an unreliable offense, the Patriots will need to rely on their defense to make another Superbowl run. This defense, led by shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore, ranked 1st in both points against and yards against*. They will try to make it tough on Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill who is making his first career start in the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans enter the playoffs on a much different note than the Patriots. After a 2-4 start the Titans benched starting quarterback Marcus Mariota and named backup Ryan Tannehill the starter. Tannehill helped the Titans win 7 of their final 10 games to finish with a 9-7 record and securing the 6 seed in the playoffs. Tannehill has provided a much needed spark to this Titans offense. He had the best season of his career completing 70% of his passes and posting a QBR of 65.4*. (Better than Brady in both categories)
The real star of this Titans offense though is running back Derrick Henry. Henry led the league in rushing yards this season with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns including a monstrous 211 yard, 3 touchdown performance last week against Houston*. At 6’3″, 247 lbs, Derrick Henry has the size, power, and speed to completely wear down defenses over 60 minutes.
The Titans defense is not among the best in the league, ranking 12th in points against and 21st in yards against*, but they are good enough to keep them in the game. With Tannehill, Henry, and emerging rookie wide-receiver A.J. Brown on offense, the Titans can compete with anybody.
This game could come down to turnovers. One key to the Patriots’ success has been their turnover margin. The Patriots led the league with a +21 turnover margin, forcing 36 turnovers on defense*. The Patriots will try to force Ryan Tannehill into uncomfortable situations during his playoff debut. He will need to protect the ball in order to give the Titans a chance against the defending champs.
*All statistics from https://www.pro-football-reference.com/