By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots should not be playing football this weekend. Everyone, including the Patriots themselves, knows that to be true. But if the Patriots want to be playing next weekend, then they’re going to have to push those feelings aside.
With a rather potent six-seed coming to Foxboro on Saturday night, the Patriots really can’t afford to have an off night against the Titans. Though Tennessee’s 9-7 record might indicate that a mediocre Titans team will be serving as this year’s annual sacrificial lamb to lose a playoff game at Gillette, Mike Vrabel’s squad is both chock full of talent and brimming with confidence.
The Patriots at home would still be the safe bet. But an upset by the Titans would not be surprising in the least.
Here’s what to watch for once this one gets started on Saturday evening.
Containing … Tannehill?
Somehow, some way, Ryan Tannehill has been one of the best quarterbacks in the entire NFL since he seized the starting job in Tennessee 10 games ago.
The 31-year-old entered this season with a career passer rating of 87.0. This year, he posted a 117.5 passer rating, which not only was the best such mark in the NFL but was also the fourth-best single-season passer rating of all time. For perspective: Tannehill slid just ahead of Tom Brady’s record-setting 2007 season, when Brady had a 117.2 passer rating.
He’s gotten better late in the season, too. Over his last seven games, Tannehill has thrown 16 touchdowns with just two interceptions. He’s also proven to be a threat with his legs, as he’s rushed for 185 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Suffice it to say, nobody saw this coming.
While Tannehill’s offense with Miami last year was obviously a completely different unit than this year’s Titans offense, it’s still worth noting that Tannehill was outstanding the last time he faced the Patriots. That meeting came in the game known for the “Miami Miracle,” when Tannehill completed 14 of 19 passes for 265 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
On the flip side, though, Tannehill was terrible in his visit to Foxboro earlier in the 2018 season, and he’s never played well in Gillette Stadium.
Regardless of history, though, Tannehill’s current run means that the Patriots’ secondary — not long ago thought of as one of the best units of all time — will need to be at its best. Tannehill is more dangerous than he’s ever been, and he certainly cannot be taken lightly.
The NFL’s Rushing Champion
Derrick Henry is enormous. He’s also quite nimble. As a result, he’ll be wearing the NFL’s rushing crown when he takes the field on Saturday against New England. (If only the crown were real. Perhaps a special paint job on the helmet? Something for the NFL to consider going forward.)
At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Henry has the body type of a linebacker. That makes him a challenge for the front seven to bring down, and it results in problems for the secondary when Henry gets to the next level.
Despite missing the Titans’ Week 16 game vs. New Orleans, Henry finished the season with the most rushing attempts, most rushing yards and most rushing touchdowns in the NFL this season. He capped his career-best season with a 211-yard, three-touchdown performance last week in Houston. He went over 100 yards six times this season, and he found the end zone in 11 of his 15 games.
Overall, the Patriots’ rushing defense has been good, allowing 95.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL. But in terms of yards allowed per rush, the Patriots ranked just 14th this season, allowing 4.2 yards per attempt.
The Patriots’ defense faced five other members of the NFL’s top 10 in rushing this year, and the results weren’t great.
Second-ranked Nick Chubb ran for 131 yards on 20 carries.
Third-ranked Lamar Jackson ran for 61 yards and two touchdowns (while also carving them up in the passing game). In that same game, ninth-ranked Mark Ingram ran for 115 yards on just 15 carries.
Sixth-ranked Joe Mixon ran for 136 yards on 25 carries.
The Patriots’ lone successful endeavor against a top-10 rusher this year came against Carlos Hyde, who was held to just 17 yards on 10 carries.
Clearly, the Patriots will have their hands full with Henry, who is the key to everything Tennessee does offensively.
Which Patriots Offense Shows Up?
In Week 16, against a top-three defense, the Patriots looked like a powerhouse. They scored 24 points, they gained 414 yards, and they looked like they had turned a corner.
A week later, against arguably the league’s worst defense, the Patriots’ offense looked anything but special.
That’s sort of been the story of the season for the Patriots’ offense, as Tom Brady has made it through the season with basically just two reliable pass catchers. Julian Edelman and James White account for 248 targets, more than 42 percent of the team’s total. They’ve caught roughly 70 percent of the passes thrown to them.
The trio of Phillip Dorsett (54 targets), Mohamed Sanu (47 targets), and Jakobi Meyers (41 targets) has caught just 57 percent of the passes headed their way. Rookie first-rounder N’Keal Harry has been targeted just 24 times in his seven games, catching 12 passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
While it would be unwise to expect the offense to suddenly figure everything out, the Titans’ pass defense should provide some opportunities for a big day for Brady and the passing game. The Titans rank 24th in passing yards allowed per game (255). They rank 15th in interception rate and 17th in sack rate, and they have the second-worst red-zone defense in the NFL. They’ve given up 25 passing touchdowns, ranking in the middle of the pack in just about every defensive category in the pass game.
Leaving aside the offensive personnel, Brady and Josh McDaniels absolutely should be able to devise a plan to capitalize on this opportunity. Whether they actually can? This year’s results have proven that to be about a 50-50 proposition.
The Experience Factor
It always helps to have playoff experience. No, that experience doesn’t get you anything once the game begins. Yet when certain situations arise during a high-stakes playoff game, it surely helps to have been through that fire before.
“A lot of plays come up over the years when I think about playoff football,” Brady said this week. “And if you’re on the wrong end of one of them, it’s your season. If you’re on the right end, you move on. You don’t know which play that is going to be, and you can’t take anything for granted.”
Saturday will mark the 41st playoff game of Brady’s playing career, and it will be the 43rd playoff game of Bill Belichick’s head coaching career. On the other sideline, Mike Vrabel will be coaching his first-ever playoff game, and Ryan Tannehill will be making his playoff debut. Overall, the Patriots have 377 games of playoff experience, compared to the Titans’ 79.
Of course, if the Titans take the field and play a better game than the Patriots, then they will win. But if it’s a close game late in the fourth quarter, there’s no doubt that one team is much more experienced and much more prepared to respond to the moment than the other.
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!