When the Tennessee Titans visit the New England Patriots in an AFC divisional semifinal Saturday night, it will be a battle of playoff neophyte against playoff slayer.
Tennessee’s 22-21 wild card round win last week in Kansas City was its first postseason game of any kind since 2008 and its first playoff win since 2003, when it beat Baltimore on Gary Anderson’s 48-yard field goal.
As for New England, the last time it missed the playoffs was 2008, when Tom Brady was knocked out in Week 1 with a torn ACL.
The Patriots have won five Super Bowls since 2001 and are considered the favorites to win their second straight AFC title. In fact, long-time Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy went so far as to declare that they were given back-to-back byes before the AFC title game.
Here are the five matchups that will determine the outcome of this game:
5. Titans CB Logan Ryan vs. Patriots WR Danny Amendola.
A lot has been made of Ryan’s knowledge of the “Patriot Way,” since he played the first four years of his career for New England. Ryan is battling a sore ankle that has limited his practice reps and forced him out of late-season games for stretches, and is probably not 100 percent. He’s likely to draw assignments against the likes of Amendola and Chris Hogan, guys who are carbon copies in that they are feisty receivers who do their best work out of the slot and use the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski as well as the speedy Brandin Cooks to get open with ease. Ryan will need help from the pass rush, but if he can find a way to keep Amendola from getting open underneath, that’s one less option Brady can use.
4. Titans OTs Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin vs. Patriots pressure package.
Lewan and Conklin were the second- and third highest-rated tackles in last week’s wild-card round, per Pro Football Focus. If Tennessee is to run the ball, control clock and limit New England’s possessions, there’s a good chance Lewan and Conklin will plow that path. Running back Derrick Henry was particularly effective last week running to the left side of the line, especially in the second half, when the Titans scored touchdowns on their first three drives and then ran out the clock on their last one. The Patriots have been vulnerable at times against the run, and Tennessee is one of the few NFL teams that could be called run-first when it has the ball.
3. Titans DC Dick LeBeau vs. Patriots OC Josh McDaniels.
LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme is iconic. So is McDaniels’ quarterback.
The one to put their stamp on the game is likely to be going to the AFC title game. Tennessee has generated more pressure on quarterbacks as the season has progressed, using the power of Jurrell Casey on the interior to complement the ability of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan to zip around opposing tackles. McDaniels will probably counter that rush with some quick throws off one- and three-step drops to get the ball out quickly. Brady has seen his share of LeBeau’s tricky, quirky blitzes over the years and knows how to beat them. New England also has the receivers and pass-catching backs to be effective against the zone blitz.
2. Titans SS Johnathan Cyprien vs. Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski.
Cyprien will be one of several guys Tennessee will try on Gronkowski, who is a matchup nightmare against everyone. Given the Titans’ ability to make even average tight ends look like All-Pros at times, it’s hard to imagine what atrocities Gronkowski could inflict on this defense if Tom Brady has time to find him. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce was having his way with Tennessee last week before Cyprien concussed him late in the second quarter. Ultimately, the Titans’ best defense against Gronkowski might be the likes of Casey, Orakpo and Morgan. Those are the pass rushers who could make life tough for Brady and a little better for the secondary if they can generate pressure.
1. Titans QB Marcus Mariota vs. Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
The only time Mariota faced New England was in December of 2015, a 33-16 loss that he departed early due to injury. Mariota, although he didn’t have as good a season this year as he did in 2016, is a better quarterback now. Patricia is also a better coordinator now than he was then, and might be a head coach by this time next month. After the Patriots were arguably the NFL’s worst defense in September, Patricia molded them into a top 10 unit in scoring defense (fifth) and sacks (ninth). New England gives up its share of yardage between the 20s but often comes up with the answers to prevent TDs. Mariota has to make good decisions when Tennessee gets to the red zone.
–Bucky Dent, Field Level Media