The Tennessee Titans playing the New England Patriots on Saturday night is one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 NFL season. It’s not because the Titans weren’t postseason worthy: a 5-2 finish put them in position to breeze past the Steelers and into the final AFC Wild Card slot with a 9-7 record.
No, the surprise team is the Patriots, completing a sudden freefall from an 8-0 start that had them positioned for yet another top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage. A crumbling offense during the second half of the season led to a 4-4 finish, including an inexplicable 27-24 defeat to the Dolphins in their Week 17 finale. The Patriots had the lead, trusting in their top-ranked defense against journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick with 3:53 left in the game. What happened next — a 5-11 opponent on the road with little to play for, driving down the field at will and scoring — has observers rightly questioning whether the Patriots' dynasty is on the brink.
People might remember a shocking Patriots loss to the Dolphins last year, too, a double-lateral miracle on the final play that resulted in a 34-33 victory last December. Tom Brady and Co. recovered from that to charge to a Super Bowl LIII victory over the Rams, but this time may prove a more difficult recovery. For the first time in 10 years, the Patriots don’t have a first-round bye, a bad omen for a team that has struggled historically when playing in the Wild Card Round. Their 3-3 record includes no Super Bowl appearances and the last time they were in this position; in 2009, the sixth-seeded Ravens breezed past them 33-14 in Foxboro.
Now, the upset role falls to the Titans, trotting in one of the league’s hottest offenses and the best running back in the league (Derrick Henry). Can former Patriots linebacker-turned-Titans head coach Mike Vrabel spearhead an upset, what would be the team’s second playoff win in the past 15 years?
Or will the Patriots stun us all and start churning toward another Super Bowl run? Saturday night’s game is easily the most intriguing of the Wild Card Round.
AFC Wild Card: Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 5 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Patriots' defense slow down Derrick Henry?
The focus leading into this weekend’s matchup will be on Tom Brady, the Patriots' dynasty, and the surprising shift in second-half play for head coach Bill Belichick’s group. That’s a shame for Henry, easily the NFL's best running back in the second half, who should force talking heads to turn their attention toward him Saturday night with his play on the field.
Henry finished as the NFL’s leading rusher, racking up 1,540 yards, 16 rushing touchdowns (tied for the NFL lead with Aaron Jones), and 5.1 yards per carry. He ended the year with five 100-yard rushing performances in his last six games, saving a masterstroke for the finale where his season-high 211 rushing yards and three touchdowns powered the Titans past division rival Houston and into the playoffs.
How important is Henry to this team? A hamstring injury in Week 14 had him at less-than-full strength the next two weeks, struggling to put up 86 yards against the Texans in their first matchup before being held out of the game against the Saints the following week. The Titans lost both games, losing an opportunity to be the AFC South division winner and finish the year 7-0.
“He’s a lot faster than people realize," Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy said to the Boston Herald. “We’re going to have our hands full."
It’s Henry’s big-play ability that will test the Patriots’ sixth-ranked rushing defense. Three times in his last six games, he’s broken out for a touchdown run of 50 yards or more, achieving two of them against AFC playoff teams (the Chiefs and Texans). And the Pats haven’t looked intimidating against the run as of late, giving up 164 yards to two-win Cincinnati just three weeks ago. Joe Mixon suddenly looked like Barry Sanders, racking up 136 yards and keeping his team in the game for far too long.
Can the Patriots D stop Henry? The plus side is they’ve faced four runners in the top 15 in the league this season and kept all of them out of the end zone: Nick Chubb, Ezekiel Elliott, Mark Ingram, and Mixon. But they also racked up yardage (see Mixon above) to the tune of 6.5 yards per carry. That doesn’t bode well for them, considering Henry’s hot streak as of late.
2. Who will Tom Brady rely on to catch the ball?
Brady’s decline has been well documented during the second half that’s seen him throw for more than 300 yards just once: Dec. 1 in garbage time after the Texans took an early lead and never looked back. His 24 touchdown passes were the fewest since 2006; the QB rating (88.0) was his lowest since '13.
How you feel about Brady’s performance Saturday night will be directly tied to whether you think he can “turn it on" in the playoffs at age 42. Legendary players often get the benefit of the doubt even if they’re no longer on top of their game; Brady had a phenomenal postseason last year that carried his team straight to the Super Bowl, including a punch-for-punch performance against the young Patrick Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs.
Problem is, Brady had Rob Gronkowski and a healthy Julian Edelman to rely on in the passing game last postseason. Who steps up now? Edelman is the only true receiver to top 400 yards on a team that has struggled to find a variety of weapons. Struggling through injuries and likely to be double-covered by the Titans' defense, the likely stifling of Edelman means other options have to become available.
Will it be a bunch of swing passes to Patriots running back James White? Potentially, but White has underachieved in 2019, failing to hit 100 receiving yards in any contest. Can Phillip Dorsett go deep and beat the defense on a big play? He had a 50-yard catch against the Dolphins... but that was his first in four weeks after a hot start. Mohamed Sanu has racked up just 207 yards in eight games after being a key trade acquisition for an offense needing another weapon.
A player to watch is rookie N’Keal Harry, who’s gradually increased his chemistry and targets with Brady. But Harry also suffered through only three catches on seven targets against the Dolphins; his drop total has to be zero Saturday night. Fullback Rex Burkhead could also be utilized more as a throwback option.
No matter what, one of these struggling role players has to be thrust to the forefront for the Patriots to be successful Saturday night. Brady can’t do it on his own.
3. Will a surging Ryan Tannehill outplay Brady on the road in a playoff game?
The days of Marcus Mariota for the Titans seem like a decade ago. After Tannehill took over midseason, he sparked a dormant offense and became a leader the team so desperately needed to pull together and push for a playoff spot.
Tannehill’s 117.5 quarterback rating, mostly achieved during his 10 games as the starter, led the NFL this season. He’s one of just three QBs all-time (Sammy Baugh, Joe Montana) to complete 70 percent of his passes and average nine yards per pass attempt. Add him to Henry and the Titans' offense walloped the competition with a league-leading nine plays of 50 yards or more.
The question is how much Tannehill can be trusted in his first-ever NFL playoff game? The veteran is playing on the road and going up against the league’s second-best pass defense. A unit that boasts potential NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore leads the league with 25 interceptions; Tannehill is susceptible to making those types of mistakes, even in a career year.
How will he handle the pressure?
“I think just sticking true to what has gotten me to this point: Going into the game being fully prepared for the situations that can arise, and make the adjustments within the game," he said to Titans Online. "This is a team that plays at a very high level of defense and will always throw something at you that you haven’t seen on tape or change something up on you, so you just have to be able to adjust within the game."
What does Titans head coach Mike Vrabel bring to his matchup with Bill Belichick? An inner understanding of how the Patriots work after his time with them as a linebacker from 2001-08. It’s an intimate knowledge few others have of schemes, personnel and the way Belichick seeks to attack an opponent.
That unique position has worked for former Patriots personnel before: just ask last week’s winner Brian Flores, the Patriots defensive play-caller who just finished his first season as the Dolphins' head coach. Lions head coach Matt Patricia, a former Patriots defensive coordinator, defeated them last season despite a 9-22-1 overall record as a head coach. And Vrabel, during his first year with the Titans, tore apart the Patriots with a 34-10 victory in November 2018.
In looking at this game, I think back to Peyton Manning and his tenure with the Denver Broncos. When the end came for Manning, we never realized it until about eight games into his precipitous decline. To be fair, there are more excuses in this Patriots world for Brady: not enough receiving talent. A running back in Sony Michel who has underachieved. A roller-coaster kicking game and some questionable coaching decisions.
But there’s also one opponent Brady can never fight: Father Time. At 42, he might have finally met his match and could be on the verge of departing New England (or retiring altogether) after this emboldened Titans team comes into town and puts together a historic upset.
Prediction: Titans 24, Patriots 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.