By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots will play the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night in the divisional round of the playoffs, and it’s a team with whom the Patriots don’t have a ton of familiarity.
The two teams haven’t played against each other since December of 2015. Quite a bit has changed since then. The Titans’ leading passer, rusher and receiver that day are all no longer part of the team. For the Patriots, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Akiem Hicks, and Jamie Collins recorded sacks, and Joey Iosefa was the team’s leading rusher.
A lot can change in the NFL, even in just 25 months. So here’s a quick look at the key players who will be making the trek to try to upset the top-seeded Patriots this weekend.
QB – Marcus Mariota
The Titans’ most well-known player, Mariota took a huge step backward in his third NFL season. After throwing 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016, Mariota this year threw just 13 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. His passer rating went from 95.6 to 79.3.
He has remained a solid rusher, though, and he set a career high with five touchdowns on the ground. On Saturday night in the Titans’ playoff win over the Chiefs, he managed to make some history by completing a touchdown pass to himself.
In that game, which was his playoff debut, Mariota went 19-for-31 for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and he ran eight times for 46 yards. He also threw a key block on linebacker Frank Zombo to help spring Derrick Henry for the 22-yard rush that sealed the win. That’s the type of attitude from a quarterback that led to a big-time upset on the road, and the Titans hope it can lead to another one.
Mariota started that 2015 game against the Patriots, but he left due to injury early in the second quarter, ending his rookie season.
RB – Derrick Henry/DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray was the team’s top back, but a knee injury has sidelined him for the past two games. He’s considered day-to-day this week.
If he can’t go (and let’s consider him doubtful), then Derrick Henry appears capable of filling in quite well. After a disappointing showing as the team’s lead back in Week 17, Henry challenged himself to be better. Against Kansas City, he was certainly better, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
The second-year back out of Alabama was actually better — statistically speaking — than Murray on the year, rushing for 744 yards and five touchdowns on 176 carries. (Murray rushed for 659 yards and six touchdowns on 184 attempts.)
TE – Delanie Walker
The Titans’ leading receiver this season was tight end Delanie Walker. The two-time Pro Bowler caught 74 passes for 807 yards, leading the team in both categories. He also caught three touchdowns.
A 12-year veteran, nothing’s new for Walker, who caught six passes for 74 yards against the Chiefs and set career postseason highs in doing so.
Walker was Mariota’s top-targeted receiver in the wild-card round, which likely contributed to Marcus Peters being able to jump the tight end’s route for an interception in the second quarter.
WR – Rishard Matthews, Eric Decker, Corey Davis
The Titans’ top duo of Matthews and Decker may not come immediately to mind when discussing the best pairs in the league, but the two have put together solid seasons in Tennessee. Matthews caught 53 passes for 795 yards and a team-leading four touchdowns, while Decker caught 54 passes for 563 yards, and one touchdown. And it was Decker who caught the game-winning touchdown in Kansas City over the weekend.
Matthews played for Miami from 2012-15, and Decker played for the Broncos and the Jets from 2010-16, so both players have plenty of experience playing against the Patriots.
Rookie Corey Davis was drafted by the Titans in the first round at No. 5 overall last spring, and while his regular-season numbers didn’t pop, he was Mariota’s second-most targeted receiver against the Chiefs.
LB – Wesley Woodyard, Brian Orakpo, Avery Williamson, Derrick Morgan
Wesley Woodyard will certainly be the best linebacker on the field at Gillette on Saturday night. The 10-year veteran set career highs in solo tackles (84) and total tackles (124) while also recording four sacks. The Titans boast a stout defensive front against the run, and Woodyard’s right in the middle of it.
Williamson was second on the team in total tackles (92) while also recording three sacks and two forced fumbles, while Orakpo led the team with seven sacks and also recorded three forced fumbles. Orakpo had 1.5 sacks against the Chiefs, splitting one with Woodyard.
Morgan recorded a sack against the Chiefs after a 7.5-sack season, which led the team.
S – Kevin Byard
The second-year safety out of Middle Tennessee State may not yet be a household name, but he did share the NFL lead in interceptions this season with eight. Considering that came after a zero-interception rookie season, it’s safe to say nobody saw that coming. Byard was actually the only member of the Titans with more than one interception, so if there is a defender who might make a jump on a Tom Brady pass, expect it to be No. 31.
Byard also ranked third on the team in total tackles, and as a result of his excellent season, he was named First Team All-Pro. He led the Titans with six tackles against the Chiefs.
CB – Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson
Ryan is the second-most experienced Titan in terms of playoff games, thanks to his long tenure in New England, where he won two Super Bowls. Playing in Foxboro will not be uncomfortable for Ryan, who put forth a solid if not stunning first season with the Titans after signing for decent money in the offseason.
Jackson ranked fourth on the team with 70 total tackles and also managed to sneak in for three sacks.
DL – Jurrell Casey
The veteran big man made his third straight Pro Bowl, with six sacks on the season.
K – Ryan Succop
P – Brett Kern
The kicker did what was asked of him in chilly Arrowhead last week, successfully booting one PAT and nailing a 49-yard field goal late in the second quarter.
On the season, he went 31-for-33 on PATs and was 35-for-42 on field goals, with all seven of those misses coming from 40 yards or more.
The only Titan other than Byard to receive All-Pro attention, Kern made Second Team All-Pro this year. He led the league with a 49.7-yard average.
Head Coach – Mike Mularkey
Rumors circulated that if the Titans had lost to the Chiefs, Mularkey would have been fired even after earning the playoff spot. He’s apparently done enough now to have kept his employment, but his job this week is unenviable.
You see, as a head coach in the NFL, Mularkey has gone up against Bill Belichick six times. He has lost all six.
As for his team’s chances this time around against Belichick and the Patriots? Well, it appears as though Mularkey is trying to keep expectations low.
“I’d like to just see us play our best football to see where we are at with these guys,” Mularkey said Sunday night.