By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Oh, thank goodness. It’s almost time for some actual football.
Yeah, it has been an absolute blast to spend the last week wildly speculating about the sadness levels of Bill Belichick, and analyzing how terrible of a teammate Tom Brady has been, and questioning if there’s any future for Robert Kraft’s dynasty. It’s been fun crowning Jimmy Garoppolo as the Greatest Young Quarterback In The NFL and reeling in agony at the Patriots’ foolhardy move to let him go — so fun, in fact, that if you weren’t careful, you would’ve forgotten that there is an actual football game to be played this weekend.
Fortunately, the time for kickoff is approaching rapidly, and we’ll soon find out whether the Patriots will be moving on to the AFC Championship Game or if their season will be ended by a confident Titans team at Gillette Stadium.
Here’s What To Watch For when these teams finally kick off on Saturday night.
Will Brady Be Brady?
Tom Brady had an excellent season on the whole. He’s a lock to win the NFL MVP award. But he ended the year looking more like Blake Bortles than Tom Brady, throwing six touchdowns and five interceptions with an 81.6 passer rating over the final five games of the regular season.
The Patriots still went 4-1 in those games, scoring an average of 27 points per game, so perhaps it’s not a full-on crisis. At the same time, the significance of interceptions is always magnified in January, and if the Patriots are going to make the Super Bowl run they hope to make, Brady’s likely going to have to carry the team for stretches during this postseason run.
Brady should have his chances against Tennessee, too. The Titans allowed over 3,800 passing yards this season, ranking 25th in the NFL. They were tied for 24th in touchdown passes allowed with 27. And they ranked 16th in opponents’ passer rating.
Considering Brady’s had two weeks to rest, and considering he’s historically owned defenses coached by Dick LeBeau, and considering it’s not supposed to be a bitterly cold night in Foxboro, this figures to be a golden opportunity for the quarterback to regain his MVP form.
The Turnover Game
The Patriots went 13-3. The Titans went 9-7.
While there’s no A-to-A comparison to explain such a wide discrepancy, the turnover numbers help.
The Patriots had a plus-6 turnover ratio, after forcing 18 turnovers and turning it over 12 times themselves.
The Titans had a minus-4 turnover ratio. They actually forced 21 turnovers, but they turned the ball over 25 times. That included 15 interceptions thrown by Marcus Mariota,
The third-year quarterback was able to overcome an interception deep in Chiefs territory last weekend, but a similar miscue in Foxboro might prove to be too much for the Titans to get past.
It also works the other way. If Brady — who threw an interception in five straight games for the first time since 2002 — makes an errant throw or two (the way he did in the divisional round vs. the Texans last year), then it could be enough to keep the Titans in the game.
Derrick Henry was dismayed by his own performance in Week 17 after the team looked to him to carry the load in the wake of DeMarco Murray’s injury. So Henry refocused and challenged himself to be better; against Kansas City, he was.
Henry ran 23 times for 156 yards and a 35-yard touchdown in the Titans’ upset win over the Chiefs. And if the Titans are to pull off a second straight upset, they’ll need a repeat performance.
The Patriots’ run defense will need to perform better than it did during the regular season, when it ranked 31st in yards per attempt and 20th in total yards allowed. (The Patriots did rank second-best in rushing touchdowns allowed, with just six on the whole year.)
Interestingly, Henry did almost all of his damage vs. the Chiefs while running to the left side of the offense. While the Patriots struggled in that area this year, they’ve historically done quite well when armed with this type of knowledge. We’ll wait to see if the Titans switch things up, or if they try to go strength vs. weakness and hope the Patriots aren’t ready for it.
If Henry can’t carry the offense, it could force Mariota into too many third-and-longs in a raucous playoff environment, and it could lead the game to end up looking like many prognosticators are predicting.
Tom Brady is quite good. So is Rob Gronkowski. But beyond those two superstars, the Patriots have an unfair number of players who are capable of really going off at any given moment.
Update: Rex Burkhead Reportedly Out
Brandin Cooks caught 65 passes for 1,082 yards and seven touchdowns on the year. Chris Hogan was having a career year before suffering an injury, and he appears to be healthy now. Danny Amendola remains a significant third-down option for Brady, and even Dwayne Allen figured out a way to be a part of the passing game in the second half of the year.
Then there is the backfield. Dion Lewis is perhaps the most underrated player in all of football, both as a runner and a receiver. Rex Burkhead and James White both averaged 4.0 yards or more per carry, while White caught 56 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns out of the backfield.
And though he can’t be considered reliable at this exact moment, Kenny Britt certainly possesses the talent (and motivation) to break a big play.
That’s all without really considering who the quarterback and the tight end are. It’s a stacked mix, to be sure, and it makes it difficult to foresee who exactly will be the star on a given night. Last year in the Super Bowl, it was White. In the AFC title game, it was Hogan. In the divisional round, it was Lewis and Julian Edelman. It’s just hard to know which Patriots player will shine.
But after two weeks of rest, the healthy Patriots clearly have plenty of options in an offense that is as potent as any in the NFL playoffs. The Titans’ defense has a healthy amount of talent, but do they have enough to handle all of those weapons? Few — if any — teams do.