In this corner, the NFL’s flagship franchise, winners of five Super Bowls since 2001 and in prime position to make a run at a sixth.
And in this corner, a team that won its first playoff game since 2003 last week.
The contrasts between the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans couldn’t be more stark. Some would suggest that not even a star director with a bronze tan could devise a script under which Tennessee upsets New England Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
The fifth-seeded Titans (10-7) are a 13-point underdog in this AFC Divisional playoff for good reason. They were outscored by 22 points during the regular season and needed a Week 17 win over Jacksonville to earn their first playoff berth in nine years.
It appeared the Titans would be one-and-done last week in Kansas City when the Chiefs established a 21-3 halftime lead. But in a stunning turnaround, Tennessee dominated the second half, holding Kansas City to 61 total yards and scoring three straight touchdowns to pull out a 22-21 win.
Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry led the charge. Mariota threw two touchdown passes — one to himself and the other to Eric Decker for the game-winner — and Henry shredded the Chiefs’ poor run defense for 156 yards and a touchdown in 23 carries.
“We go as Marcus goes,” Decker said. “He has shown his personality the last couple of weeks and how tough he is, and how much of a leader he is.”
Now comes the ultimate test for Mariota and the Titans: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Add in the ESPN.com story that suggests Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and the ingredients seem to be in place for a command performance by a New England team which seems to thrive on turning controversy into motivation.
Belichick sure wasn’t in much of a mood to discuss rumors of the crumbling football Camelot earlier this week.
“We’ve dealt with some non-Tennessee subjects here over the past few days,” Belichick said. “At this point, I’m all in on Tennessee. We know we’ll need to have our best game Saturday night.”
The matchups look good for the Patriots (13-3), as long as their offensive line can keep the Titans from generating pressure on Brady, who led the league in passing yardage with 4,577 yards and boasted an impressive 32-8 touchdown-interception ratio.
Rob Gronkowski (69 catches, 1,084 yards, eight TDs) will be a handful for a team that usually struggles to cover the tight end. Brandin Cooks (65-1,082-7) has offered a big-play threat on the outside to complement the team’s endless supply of slot receivers and pass-catching running backs.
Defensively, New England rebounded from a terrible September to finish fifth in the NFL in points allowed (296) and ninth in sacks with 41. But its run defense will get a test from Henry and Mariota, who in the last two games has given a needy offense a big boost with his ability to create plays with his feet.
“He actually knows when to run and when to pass the ball when scrambling,” Patriots safety Duron Harmon said of Mariota. “He always has his eyes downfield, always knows when to run, when to throw the pass.”
FIELD LEVEL MEDIA Prediction: Patriots 31, Titans 17
–Bucky Dent, Field Level Media