By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Given all the discussion surrounding the New England Patriots over the last week, it’s hard to believe they actually have a playoff game this weekend.
Based on the narrative created by ESPN’s story on a growing rift in the organization, it feels more like the Patriots lost during Wild Card weekend and their dynastic run of the last two decades has come to a crashing halt. Gillette Stadium is in shambles and a mass exodus will soon follow. Bill Belichick is going to the Giants, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia are both heading elsewhere to lead their own teams, and only Tom Brady and Robert Kraft (and, of course, Alex Guerrero) will be left to pick up the pieces.
But in reality, none of that is true. At least not right now, as the Patriots are gearing up for a Divisional Round showdown with the Tennessee Titans.
Patriots fans have been spoiled since Belichick and Brady began their run, so the Divisional Round has kind of lost its luster around these parts. Having the Titans coming to town doesn’t really help this weekend, but for every shellacking of the wannabe Texans or Tim Tebow-led Broncos, there are some thrilling matchups like the Ravens a few years ago — one of the greatest games played at Gillette Stadium. Hopefully this game will fall somewhere in the middle.
Following a 13-3 season that earned them the top seed in the AFC, the Patriots are heavy favorites heading into Saturday’s tilt. But the Titans are coming off an impressive comeback win over the Chiefs in Kansas City, one of the hardest places to play in the NFL. Here are some of the key players to watch in Saturday’s game (the non-Brady division, because we all know he’s going to be a big part anyways), as the two teams battle for a spot in the AFC Championship Game.
We all know that Rob Gronkowski is pretty good at catching the football, and even when he isn’t hauling in passes from Brady, he commands boatloads of attention from opposing defenses. That allows everyone else to either get open or find large gaps of desolation around the field to do damage of their own.
The Titans were pretty good against tight ends during the regular season but they struggled mightily against Travis Kelce last week before he left with a concussion. The Kelce injury opened the door for Tennessee’s comeback, and credit to them for taking full advantage. But now they have to deal with Gronkowski, who is coming off an All-Pro season and is as healthy as he’s ever been at this time. He’s champing at the bit after missing last year’s Super Bowl run and primed for a big playoff performance.
That should start on Saturday night, as Gronkowski has averaged 14 yards per reception in his four games against Dick LeBeau defenses. Five of those 26 receptions were for touchdowns, so expect a Gronk spike or two against the Titans.
Brady and Gronk get most of the attention, but the smallest guy on the New England offense could make the biggest impact. What Lewis can do out of the backfield, either as a runner or a pass-catcher, doesn’t make sense at times, but goodness is it fun to watch. The crafty back can make the NFL’s best defenders miss badly and look more like junior college walk-ons, and he gives Brady a great safety blanket in Julian Edelman’s absence.
The Patriots didn’t fully unleash Lewis until midseason and once the he was let loose, few teams could do much of anything to slow him down. The Titans had a solid run defense during the regular season, allowing just 3.6 yards per carry and only five rushing touchdowns, but now they have to handle an explosive back for the second straight week. They held Kareem Hunt to just 42 yards on 11 carries last weekend, though you can really question Andy Reid and former KC offensive coordinator Matt Nagy (now the man in charge of the Chicago Bears) for going away from Hunt after Kelce went down.
Lewis was an absolute beast in last year’s Divisional Round, with a rushing, receiving and kick return touchdown against the Texans, and looks primed for another big game this weekend.
Kyle Van Noy
Van Noy is coming off a career year for the Patriots, racking up 73 tackles and 5.5 sacks. He played over 90 percent of New England’s defensive snaps and was responsible for quarterbacking the D before getting dinged up late in the season. But now he’s back and his versatility will be a major factor in the success of the defense this postseason.
That starts on Saturday when Van Noy will be leading the charge against running back Derrick Henry. He’ll also likely line up on the edge a handful of times as the Patriots try to keep Marcus Marriota in the pocket. Van Noy is usually everywhere on the field and has a nose for the ball, which is exactly what the Patriots will need against the Titans.
The Titans have a big target and playmaker in tight end Delanie Walker, and it will be up to Chung to keep him in check. Walker led Tennessee’s air attack in receptions (74), yards (807), yards after catch and first downs. He found the end zone just three times during the season, but that can be explained by Mariota throwing just 14 touchdown passes.
Walker had a big game the last time the Titans came to town in 2015, with both of his catches going for touchdowns in a 33-16 Patriots win. One was a 57-yarder where he made all of the New England defense look foolish, starting with Chung, who suffered more than just a bruised ego on the play.
The Patriots know Walker can do plenty of damage if they lose track of him, so look for Chung to make up for the last time he was tasked with blanketing the tight end.
Mariota didn’t have a great season overall, but he is still Tennessee’s biggest threat on offense. He can take over a game if gets going, whether it’s with his arm or his legs. The Patriots have praised the 24 year old’s athleticism all week, which was on full display last weekend when he pulled down one of his own deflected passes and took it in for a touchdown against the Chiefs. He took it a step further when he made a key block late in the game to spring Henry for a big run to help seal the victory.
So if he’s feeling it, Mariota can make teams pay in a lot of different ways. The Patriots have had their issues with mobile quarterbacks this season, so they’ll need to keep Mariota from making magic happen with his legs, opening up his opportunities in the passing game.
With DeMarco Murray out, Henry will once again be the featured back for the Titans. He had a monster game last Saturday in Kansas City, averaging 6.8 yards per carry while rushing for 156 yards and a 35-yard touchdown. He’s a threat to make a big run on every carry.
The Patriots allowed the second-fewest rushing touchdowns during the regular season with six, but ranked 20th in allowing 115 rushing yards per game. Keeping both Henry and Mariota from doing damage on the ground will be a big factor on Saturday, especially if the Titans can keep the game close.
Derrick Morgan & Brian Orakpo
We could have tossed Nate Solder’s name in the New England portion, but we saved his name for here. The left tackle will have his hands full protecting Tom Brady’s blindside with a pair of very talented Titans pass rushers. Morgan and Orakpo combined for 14.5 sacks this season, and we all know that LeBeau loves to send pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
That hasn’t always spelled success against Brady, as the quarterback is 5-2 in his career against LeBeau-led defenses. That includes 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions from Brady, and that trio of passes to the other team came in his first two games against the longtime defensive coordinator. Brady hasn’t thrown a pick against a LeBeau defense since 2005.
LeBeau may (finally) change things up against Brady, and the Titans have a good enough defensive front to let some of their big bodies drop back into coverage. Brady didn’t have a great stretch to close the season, and making him see ghosts and hear footsteps in the pocket is always the key to throwing him off his game. In Morgan and Orakpo, the Titans have a dangerous duo that can do just that.
The second-year safety said he wants to make Brady look like Blake Bortles, whom he picked off twice in Week 17, which is a pretty good line. And given Byard is coming off an All-Pro season, he shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s nice to see a young pup eager to take on the NFL’s greatest passer.
But it should also be noted that while Byard finished tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with eight, they all came in bunches. Three of those picks came against the Cleveland Browns (two on DeShone Kizer and one on Cody Kessler) and two more the following week against Joe Flacco. Only one of his picks came against an above-average quarterback this season, which was all the way back in Week 4 against Texans rookie DeShaun Watson in a 57-14 blowout loss in Houston.
Chances are that Bortles line made its way back to Brady, and although it was pretty funny, the soon-to-be NFL MVP probably wasn’t very amused. That will likely mean a long night for Byard.
Tune in to Saturday night’s Patriots-Titans AFC Divisional Round game on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Coverage begins with a special Patriots GameDay at 7pm, and after the game stick with WBZ-TV for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!