By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots weren’t supposed to be playing this weekend, but here we are. Because of a disappointing end to the regular season, the Patriots don’t get to rest up and instead have to face a tough Tennessee Titans team in the Wild Card round.
The Titans may have finished the regular season 9-7, but they are no slouches. They have a versatile offense that is going to keep New England’s stout defense on their heels Saturday night.
We’ll hear a lot about the rejuvenation of Ryan Tannehill, and he brings his own set of threats to the New England defense. Like Miami’s Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tannehill can get hot in a hurry and stay hot, which would be bad news for the Patriots. Tannehill had a career year for the Titans, and completely turned the team around when he took over as their starting QB in October. Tennessee had one of the best offenses in the league since Tannehill was named their starter, as he went on to complete 70 percent of his passes and threw 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
But he isn’t the most feared of the Titans who will be coming into Gillette on Saturday night. Here are the Tennessee players that will pose the biggest threats for the Patriots in the Wild Card round.
This man is a beast. He led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns during the regular season. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which also led the NFL.
At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Henry is a monster at chewing up defenders. He bullied his way to 211 yards and three touchdowns against the Texans in Week 17, including a 53-yard touchdown run. He ran for 708 yards and found the end zone eight times over the last five weeks, averaging 6.1 yards per carry in that span.
He’ll beat defenders with a powerful stiff arm or elusive spin move, or he’ll simply run them over. Henry is one of the big reasons why the Titans were the NFL’s best team inside the red zone, scoring on 75.6 percent of their trips inside the 20. Tennessee scored touchdowns on all three of their goal-to-go chances on Sunday (only two of which were on runs by Henry), and found the end zone 22 times in their 25 goal-to-go situations in the season.
The Patriots defense struggled against bigger backs all season long, and will have a mighty challenge against Henry on Saturday night. If Henry is able to run wild, the Titans will be able to keep the ball away from the Patriots.
He’s a rookie, but this kid is already a big-play stud. Brown led the NFL with eight receptions of 40 yards or more in 2019. He had 15 receptions that went for at least 20 yards. He’s pretty allusive after he catches the ball, racking up 463 yards after catch — good for 14th in the NFL.
The rookie did most of his damage when it was most important to the Titans, later in the season as the team fought for their spot in the playoffs. Since Tennessee came off their bye in Week 11, Brown led the NFL with 605 yards and five touchdowns — including a 91-yard touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in Week 14. He even added a 49-yard rushing score against the Saints two weeks ago, just for fun.
If you’re looking for a more recent big play from Brown, you only need to go back a few days. Tennessee scored their first touchdown in Week 17 on a 51-yard Tannehill-to-Brown strike.
Overall, Brown averaged 20.2 yards per reception. He can break tackles at a ridiculous rate too, forcing a miss on a third of his touches. The New England defense is going to have to be ready for anything from Tannehill’s favorite target.
Does that name sound familiar? It should because Davis has had some big games against New England. He caught both of Tennessee’s touchdowns in their 35-14 Divisional round loss in Foxboro in 2017. And last season, Davis hauled in seven receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown in their 34-10 win over New England in Tennessee. He did that with Stephon Gilmore covering him, too.
That has gone down as one of Gilmore’s worst day in a Patriots uniform, though his performance against Miami’s DeVante Parker last weekend (Parker had eight receptions on 11 targets for 137 yards) is some solid competition on that front. Keeping either Brown or Davis in check on Saturday would be a good way for Gilmore to bounce back.
Now we’ll shift our focus to the Tennessee defense, which was a pretty stout unit to start the season. Injuries ravaged their secondary, as the Titans lost both of their starting cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson, but defensive coordinator Dean Pees was able to hold it all together.
The Titans still have a solid duo at safety in Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro, with Byard leading the charge. He came down with his team-leading fifth interception of the season in Week 17, and leads everyone in the NFL with 17 picks since the start of the 2017 season.
Harold Landry III
The former Boston College Eagle led the Titans with nine sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss this season. The linebacker hasn’t gotten to a quarterback since Dec. 1, so he’s due in that department.
The 6-foot-1, 305 pound nose tackle got to AJ McCarron last weekend for his fifth sack of the season. He had at least five sacks in each of the last seven seasons, and is going to require some attention on the line.
Yes, we’re highlighting a punter. But we’re not alone. Unprompted, Bill Belichick referred to Brett Kern as “probably the best punter in the league” on his Monday morning conference call. That’s saying something, coming from a man who employs the talented Jake Bailey.
But Kern was a weapon Tennessee, pinning opponents deep in their own territory all season long. He averaged 47.1 yards per punt and led the NFL with 37 boots downed inside the 20. He had just two touchbacks all year. With the Patriots offense struggling to move the ball, Kern’s kicks could be a key to a Tennessee victory on Saturday.
Tune in to Saturday’s Patriots-Titans Wild Card showdown on WBZ-TV — the flagship station of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m., and after the game stay tuned for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!