Sunday's showdown in Foxborough between the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots is riddled with drama. Not only are two first-place teams duking it out, but the matchup pits mentor against mentee as Bill Belichick's former player, Mike Vrabel, takes a turn as his nemesis in what could be a preview of another outstanding playoff matchup between these two teams.
Tennessee (8-3) is coming off a baffling and ugly 22-13 home loss to the lowly Houston Texans last week. The Titans had won their previous six games prior to the Houston slip-up and were commanding league-wide respect. Despite the loss, they still have the best record in the AFC and are in the driver's seat for the No. 1 overall seed. But the gigantic elephant in the tiny, tiny room is the Titans' offense completely lacking an identity or explosiveness with running back Derrick Henry on the IR.
If Mugatu were an NFL pundit — and not a Will Ferrell character from "Zoolander" — he'd tell you everything you'd need to know about the New England Patriots. They're so hot right now! The Pats have won five in a row and now have a noticeable lead in the AFC East as Mac Jones is blossoming and their defense is dominating. But Belichick's squad is thinking about more than just another great regular season — they're thinking division title and AFC championship.
Tennessee (8-3) at New England (7-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New England's lockdown D
The catalyst behind the Patriots' resurgence has been their fortress of a defense. During New England's five-game winning streak, the defense has only allowed 10 points per game and surrendered more than 20 points just once. In that same span, they've kept opposing teams to 18 first downs or fewer in each game, forced 13 total turnovers, and allowed only 169.5 passing yards and 88 rushing yards per game. In their last three contests, the Patriots have surrendered a total of 13 points.
The spark plug for New England's defense has been its front seven. The Pats are middle of the pack when it comes to their frequency of blitzes (22 percent), but they still turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks at a high rate. They rank third overall in pressure rate (26.6 percent) and fourth in sacks (28). In their last three games, they've pressured opposing quarterbacks on 43 percent of total dropbacks, an absurd clip.
The havoc created upfront starts with linebacker Matthew Judon, who is having a career year with an already personal best 10.5 sacks this season. But outside of Judon, it's really just a who's-who of veteran role players, no true superstars — the prototypical Belichick defense.
This week, the Pats' defense is taking on a Titans team that is struggling to figure out who they are sans Henry and coming off arguably their worst offensive output of the season.
2. It's Tannehill's time to take over
You know the old adage, "to whom much is given, much is expected?" Sure you do. Well, much was expected of Ryan Tannehill when he was given full reign of the Titans' offense after Henry was ruled out for the remainder of the season a few weeks ago. But the way Tannehill has played the last few weeks, maybe we should have lowered those expectations.
Despite winning two games without Henry, Tannehill and the Titans look lost offensively. It's no shock the Tennessee run game has been non-existent since signing Adrian Peterson and D'Onta Foreman three weeks ago. The two combined for just 3.3 yards per attempt on 50 carries the last three games, and now Peterson is back to being a free agent. But what has been somewhat surprising is how poorly Tannehill has played of late.
In the last three contests, Tannehill has thrown five interceptions to just three touchdowns, while recording a very low 4.8 air yards per attempt and a bleak 75.9 passer rating. Last week against Houston, he was extra bad, throwing four interceptions and posting a 58.4 passer rating in the loss. The numbers for Tannehill speak for themselves, but so does the eye test. He hardly ever looks comfortable in the pocket and is clearly indecisive with throws over the middle or in tight windows. It doesn't help Tannehill's case that Julio Jones is on injured reserve and A.J. Brown has been hobbled with injuries of his own and will miss Sunday's game.
On Sunday, Tannehill faces a Pats defense that ranks second in the league in passer rating allowed (71.2) and sixth in yards per attempt allowed (6.7). As mentioned earlier, the Pats' defensive front line also does a great job of getting home, as evidenced by their four sacks and 12 quarterback hits last week against Atlanta. Tannehill's 31 sacks taken are tied for the most in the league (with Justin Fields). It feels like this could be a statement game from Tannehill in righting the ship or the gathering storm that spells eventual doom for the Titans' Super Bowl chances.
3. Titans' pass rush
The Titans' pass defense has gotten better and better as the season has progressed. During their recent six-game winning streak, they only allowed 268 yards passing per contest and permitted 300 yards just one time against Buffalo. And for as well as the secondary has played, the Titans' defensive success has started up front with their pass rush.
Linebacker Harold Landry III has been a monster this season with 10.5 sacks, and he's being perfectly complemented by defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons (7.5 sacks) and Denico Autry (5 sacks) in pestering quarterbacks. But for whatever reason, the Titans' pass rush totally disappeared last week against Houston. While Tyrod Taylor only threw for 107 yards in a downpour, he was only hit once, pressured on 3.5 percent of his dropbacks, and never sacked. Those numbers are baffling for a Tennessee defense that had nine combined sacks in the previous two weeks and a Texans offensive line that has been largely bad.
This week, the Titans have to find a way to get to Jones. The rookie has been cruising the last few weeks, completing 79 percent of his throws and posting a 112.9 passer rating in the last three games. During the five-game streak, Jones has a 102 rating and seven touchdown passes to only two picks. However, Jones can be gotten. He's been sacked nine times in those five games, as he does have a habit of holding on to the ball too long. If the Titans can rebound from last week's donut and pressure Jones, they might have a chance in Foxborough on Sunday.
Simply put, the Titans' offense is terribly stunted without Derrick Henry. It doesn't help that Julio Jones has missed time and that the offensive line has been shoddy at pass protection. And while the Patriots are devoid of any true superstars, they've been playing exceptionally well as a unit on both sides of the ball. I think the Pats extend their winning streak to six as their defense locks down a limited Titans' offense.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Titans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.