By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
Note: This is a companion article to “The One Reason To Believe Titans Can Beat Patriots,” which you can read here.
BOSTON (CBS) — There is a reason to believe the Titans can pull off an upset at Gillette Stadium. I truly believe that.
Yet there are many, many … many, many, many more reasons to believe the Patriots will handily take care of the inferior Titans this coming Saturday night in Foxboro.
Let us count the ways.
First and foremost, there is the fact that while the Titans did technically win a playoff game in Kansas City, they did so despite playing a somewhat sloppy 60 minutes of football. To wit, they:
–Committed a red-zone turnover
–Committed a false start penalty with the ball inside the 1-yard line
–Were saved by a Kansas City unnecessary roughness penalty on what would have been a running into the kicker penalty to keep possession with the Chiefs
–Muffed the ensuing punt after that gift, but the Chiefs missed the field goal after their possession continued
–Dropped a pass on third-and-2 in the fourth quarter
–Were saved from what should have been ruled a fumble when Marcus Mariota was awarded forward progress on a sack
–Came awfully close to giving up two points with a turnover on a two-point conversion attempt, but again were saved by a forward progress ruling
–Completed a touchdown pass from Mariota to Mariota on a batted-down ball
That’s the type of performance that might let you eke out a victory against the Chiefs but typically leads to doom against the Patriots, who always manage to put themselves in position to capitalize on such mistakes.
There’s also history. When Tom Brady’s team is coming off a first-round bye and hosting a divisional round game, the Patriots have won six straight games, dating back to 2011. They’re 10-1 when in that position during the Brady/Belichick era.
As the 2017 team is concerned, the glaring weakness has been obvious since Week 1: Defense. But the Patriots’ defense absolutely improved as the season went on, allowing just 14.6 points per game in the second half of the season. Plus, if there’s a team out there that can exploit that New England weakness, it’s certainly not the Titans.
The Titans ranked 23rd in total offense and 19th in points scored. They ranked 30th in touchdown passes and threw the sixth-most interceptions. Their team passer rating ranked fourth-worst in the NFL. They weren’t much better running the ball, ranking 15th in both yards per game and yards per attempt. (They did, however, rank tied for second with 18 rushing touchdowns. The injured DeMarco Murray ran for six of those.)
They weren’t much of a third-down team, either, converting just 35.1 percent of their third-down attempts this year and ranking 25th in the category.
An offensive juggernaut, the Titans are not. And their negative-22 point differential on the season is reflective of that. (The Patriots had a plus-162 point differential, if you were wondering. That was tied for the best point differential in all of football.)
The Titans are also not exactly battle-tested as they enter this game. Even counting their win at Kansas City, they’re 2-2 on the year against teams that made the playoffs. By contrast, the Patriots are 5-2.
On the road, the Titans went 3-5 in the regular season, including a tough-to-watch 12-9 overtime win in Cleveland, and a four-point victory in Indianapolis against the mighty Colts.
The Patriots visited Pittsburgh in Week 15 and won 27-24; the Titans visited Pittsburgh in Week 11 and lost 40-17.
The Titans also lost to the Texans 57-14 (not a typo) one week after the Patriots beat the Texans 36-33.
If there is a glimmer of hope for the Titans from a matchup perspective, it would figure to be the drop in play by Brady over the final five games of the season. Perhaps he’s wearing down?
Well, the Titans aren’t exactly the type of defense who appear capable of stopping him this postseason. They allowed 27 touchdown passes, tied with San Francisco for 24th-best in the NFL. They were middle of the pack in every other category, except for sacks where they recorded an impressive total of 43.
But the Titans had absolutely no answer on Saturday for Travis Kelce, who caught four passes for 66 yards and a touchdown in one half of football. Certainly, All-Pro Rob Gronkowski will be able to do some damage against that defense.
The Titans’ rushing defense — which ranked first in touchdowns allowed, fourth in yards allowed per attempt, and fourth in yards allowed per game — is no joke. It may even come up with a red-zone stop that forces the Patriots to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.
But considering Mariota threw five touchdowns and 11 interceptions — seven TDs and 12 INTs if you count the playoff stats — on the road this year, will such a stop even matter? Derrick Henry looked capable of carrying a load in the backfield, potentially giving Tennessee a chance to control time of possession. But that was legitimately Henry’s best career game. He had run for 100-plus yards in a game twice before this season; he followed them up with a 13-yard-on-13-carries performance and an eight-carries-for-20-yards showing.
Mariota has made one trip to Foxboro in his career, leaving early in the second quarter after getting sacked by Jamie Collins. A rookie at the time, Mariota took three sacks that afternoon while completing 3-of-6 passes for 36 yards.
Titans head coach Mike Mularkey has also not fared well in his career against Bill Belichick. As head coach of the Bills, Jaguars and Titans, Mularkey is 0-6 all time against Belichick. The Patriots have won those games by a combined score of 172-78, or an average score of 29-13.
That’s not even the greatest coaching discrepancy at play, either. The Titans’ defensive coordinator is Dick LeBeau. And Tom Brady outright owned Dick LeBeau when he was running Pittsburgh’s defense. From 2004-14, when LeBeau was Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, Brady threw 17 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven games. The Patriots went 5-2 in those games, scoring 33 points per contest.
The Titans have a chance to win the game in the “any given Sunday” sense of the word “chance.” Maybe Brady will have an off night, and maybe a turnover or two will go Tennessee’s way, and the Titans will ride their confidence right on to the AFC Championship Game.
But probably not.
Just about anywhere you look — at quarterback, at head coach, at running back, at tight end, across the defense everywhere except linebacker — the Patriots are the superior team. The Patriots are the only team that can beat the Patriots next weekend. The Titans just aren’t on their level.