The Tennessee Titans scratched and clawed their way to another week in the NFL playoffs and now they get a rested and ready New England Patriots. The Titans came all the way back from a pretty big deficit to knock off the Chiefs on the road so momentum is on their side, but that can only take you so far. It was very encouraging to see that effort from Marcus Mariota who has been much maligned for a lot of the season. He showed his mobility and his guts in some of those runs and also had the key block on the play that resulted in a first down and sealed the victory.
Derrick Henry also was fantastic, showing folks what he can do when given the carries with DeMarco Murray (knee) sidelined. Defensively, the team made the necessary adjustments to stop the Chiefs especially after Travis Kelce left with an injury. Tennessee's defense doesn't get the attention it deserves seeing as though this unit is holding team under 90 rushing yards per game.
The Patriots have had a week off to prepare. They've won three straight and it's because of a good run game and a defense that has stabilized itself a bit after some early struggles. I still don't necessarily trust the D, but when Bill Belichick has extra time to prepare for you, he is a master at exposing your weaknesses and taking away your strengths. Tom Brady (above, right) didn't close out the season well especially if you owned him in fantasy football. The team relied on Dion Lewis and the ground game. One of the main reasons why was that key pieces of the offense have been injured. Running backs James White, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead all missed time at some point. The time off figures to be helpful for them to get back into the lineup and game plan.
These two teams last met in 2015 when New England picked up a 33-16 win as a 14.5-point favorite. In that one, Tennessee had three turnovers but was outgained by only 54 yards. New England has covered in 10 of its last 11 games as a favorite of 10 or more points because the Patriots step on team's throats when they are better. The Pats are averaging nearly 400 yards per game and 30 points at home. The Titans have covered just 12 times in their last 37 games against the rest of the AFC.
AFC Divisional Playoff: Tennessee at New England
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 13 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Patriots -13
Three Things to Watch
Listen, I think we all know that this game is probably not going to go well for the road team. This will actually be Tennessee's sixth contest over the last nine that has not been at home. Road weariness could become a bit of an issue especially in another cold atmosphere in New England. On the positive side, there is something to be said about the momentum that the Titans have after the surprise win and the fact that no one is picking them. New England's week off was spent dealing with a piece written by ESPN's Seth Wickersham, basically saying that there is a monster power struggle between Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as they decide who should get the most credit for this current dynasty. A very small part of me says that Belichick created this as extra motivation for his team, then again, they really don't need it considering they are the odds-on favorite. I don't think that the story trickles down to the rest of the team, but it's at least a factor. We rarely see this team overconfident and overlooking a weaker opponent.
2. Quack like a duck
Marcus Mariota threw for 205 yards while adding another 46 on the ground on eight rushes in last week's comeback win. He's carried the ball 18 times over his last two games and coincidentally, they were both victories over playoff teams Jacksonville (in Week 17) and Kansas City. I've maintained that Mariota is at his best when he makes teams remember that he can get out of the pocket. A wide receiver corps Eric Decker, Corey Davis and Rishard Matthews doesn't scare anyone and certainly should be locked down by the Patriots' secondary. The former Oregon QB did throw another interception, which he did in nine regular season contests (but he also caught a TD pass from himself!). New England's defense has actually failed to force a turnover in three of its last four down the stretch so if Mariota can keep that number down, then Tennessee can keep the number of possessions down while increasing the Titans' chances to win. To me, a steady diet of Derrick Henry (DeMarco Murray has already been ruled out) with some Mariota runs mixed in is a recipe to keep things close.
3. Status quo must go on
We probably don't give enough credit to the Titans' defense, probably because they don't have the name-brand stars that everyone knows. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard had 124 tackles during the regular season while Kevin Byard (right) paced the team with eight interceptions and was rewarded with first-team All-Pro honors. Just two of Tennessee's last eight opponents managed more than 100 rushing yards while the team held three other squads to less than 200 through the air. Now, I don't expect the Titans to be able to slow down both aspects of the Patriots' offense. This contest screams of a game dominated by Rob Gronkowski, who eats up the middle of the field against mediocre linebackers. Travis Kelce was very busy for Kansas City, but he left with a head injury and the Titans certainly benefited from his absence. Dick LeBeau's defenses have done a good job against the run throughout his Hall of Fame career. The question is if forcing New England to become one-dimensional will work out in Tennessee's favor. New England's passing attack has struggled as weapons go in and out of the lineup. James White, Rex Burkhead and Chris Hogan have all been banged up, but should be available for this one.
Gillette Stadium in January is not a place for magical storylines involving New England opponents. It's usually a place where those dreams go to die. We may see a rusty Patriots team to start, but don't expect Bill Belichick to let the off-the-field distractions from this week carry over. It will be all hands on deck and time to go work come kickoff.