(CBS Boston) — These New England Patriots certainly don’t look like defending Super Bowl champions. They barely look like playoff contenders. Last Sunday’s ugly loss to the Miami Dolphins, dropped them into the third seed in the AFC. Rather than enjoying a much needed week off to rest and heal, they’ll host the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium on just six days rest.
There is a lot to be concerned about in Patriots nation, from a sputtering offense to a newly suspect secondary to an opponent that features one of the hottest quarterback-running back tandems going into the postseason.
The Patriots offense has struggled before, only to find its stride en route to a playoff run and Super Bowl win. Isn’t that basically what happened last season? And don’t we always seem to doubt right up to the last moment? Yes and yes.
But this season feels a little different. “What surprised me is that they haven’t been able to get into that offensive rhythm this late in the season,” notes NFL On CBS lead sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. “We’ve seen it before, we saw it last year even… But they found it, they found their way. I don’t think I’ve seen a Patriot team that hasn’t been able to find their way offensively this late in the season.”
According to Wolfson, the Patriots offense needs to do two things in their Wild Card matchup. “The most important thing for them is they need to establish the run. And we saw a little bit of that last week. That’s really where they’re going to be able to win. We know playoff football is all about running the football and not turning the ball over and controlling the clock and the tempo.” That means a steady diet of James White, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, or, more likely, some combination of the three.
A healthier Julian Edelman will certainly help Tom Brady keep the ball moving. But that won’t be enough in the passing game. “They need someone else to step up,” says Wolfson, “whether it’s N’Keal Harry or Mohamed Sanu, and they need to get them the ball.”
The defense has kept the team afloat while the offense finds its way. The Patriots boast the top-ranked defense coming out of the regular season. But in Week 17, the secondary let the Miami Dolphins’ DeVante Parker torch them for eight receptions and 135 yards. Is this yet another thing to worry about? Wolfson admits the Pats “…didn’t have their best game coverage-wise last week. We also know how this works out with the Patriots. They’ll get stuff cleaned up.”
How the Patriots defense defends against this Titans offense may be the most intriguing part of this matchup. “They just seem to be getting better and better,” says Wolfson, who’s already seen the Titans offense on four occasions this season. “And now with Derrick Henry healthy — he hasn’t been on the injury report this week — they’re really difficult, because Ryan Tannehill is playing so well. They have the rookie in A.J. Brown. They have Derrick Henry, who seems like he’s impossible to take down and stop and just gets better with every carry. And then you have Jannu Smith, the tight end. They have a bunch of tight ends to kind of wreak havoc. So there’s a lot of stuff they can do.”
Tannehill has been one of the NFL’s most efficient passers since taking over for Marcus Mariota earlier in the season. He’s completing an astounding 70.3 percent of his passes and has 20 touchdown passes against just six interceptions. He’s coming off a two-touchdown showing against the Houston Texans, who admittedly had nothing to play for in Week 17.
More impressive than Tannehill has been Henry, who turned in another monster game against the Texans. Henry ran 32 times for an absurd 211 yards and three touchdowns. The 247-pound tank of a running back has topped 150 yards and two touchdowns on multiple other occasions this season. His 1,540 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns led the NFL during the regular season.
The Titans will look to control the time and tempo with their running game, and the weather may help them out. According to Wolfson, “It’s supposed to rain and then snow throughout the game. And anytime there’s wet weather — wet football — it certainly helps the team that can run the football. And that certainly right now looks to favor the Titans.”
The Patriots play the Titans Saturday @ 8:15 p.m. on CBS.