Pats Preview: Divisional Round
As the New England Patriots prepare for their divisional round battle with the Tennessee Titans, at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, here are some key story lines to keep in mind:
Mismatch In The Making- The game, though it is a second round postseason match up, is expected by many to be a rather one-sided affair, in favor of the Pats. Although the Titans ride a solid second half performance, which saw them outscore the Kansas City Chiefs 19-0 over the final two quarters of their wild card game last Saturday, into New England, the Titans seemingly benefited more from the Chiefs' mistakes and complacency rather than their own skill and game plan. With an extra week off to get healthy and plan for their opponent, the Patriots are likely to bully around their opponent and sail to the AFC title game.
Returning Weapons- The Patriot offense should be more explosive on Saturday night than it was down the stretch, thanks to the expected return of a pair of offensive weapons. Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White and wide receiver Chris Hogan are all expected back in the lineup for New England and available at full service for the team. Hogan played in just nine games this season, including only one of the team's final eight contests, after suffering a major shoulder injury in their Week 8 win over the LA Chargers. The deep threat receiver's presence back on the field should allow other players to get some open opportunities and should give Tom Brady another solid option to target. Both Burkhead, who missed six games this season including the last two with a knee injury, and White, who's been dealing with an ankle injury that cost him the final two regular season games, are expected to be back in the backfield with their dynamic teammate Dion Lewis. While Lewis has played at an elite level without his two backfield mates, having both Burkhead and White available should allow coordinator Josh McDaniels to get more creative with his plays and should take some of the burden off of the oft-injured Lewis. Expect all three players to play productive roles in the offense.
Go To Gronk- After not getting targeted in a game he played in for the first time in his career, Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski should play a big role in New England's game plan. Last week, the Titan defense was exploited by Kansas City's tight ends, Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris, who caught six of the seven balls thrown their way for 88 yards and a score. Kelce, who left the game in the first half with a concussion, was dominant until his exit. Gronkowski is 10 times the player and threat that Kelce is, so expect Brady to target his All-Pro tight end early and often, to help New England light up the scoreboard.
Limit The Scoring- While the Patriot offense is expected to be firing on all cylinders, their defense should do their part to limit the scoring on the other side of the field. While the Pats finished the regular season with the league's 29th ranked defense, based on yards allowed per game, the team capped the campaign in the top five of all scoring defenses. The unit allowed just 18.5 points per game, as they shook off a rocky start to the season and became the typical bend but don't break defense the regularly are. With Tennessee coming in as nothing more than a middle-of-the-road offense at best, the New England defense should be able to continue their trend of stinginess and keep their opponents out of the end zone. Holding opponents to field goals, instead of touchdowns, will likely be the difference in the postseason.
Twin Titan Threats- While the Titan offense isn't a juggernaut by any means, the unit does have a pair of dangerous weapons at quarterback Marcus Mariota's disposal. Running back Derrick Henry and tight end Delanie Walker both led the team this season in their respective categories, with Henry rushing for 744 yards and five scores and Walker totaling 807 receiving yards and three scores. That fact held true in the team's first postseason game, as Henry carried the ball 23 times for 156 yards and a score and Walker caught a team-high six passes for 74 yards. The Patriots will need to neutralize at least one of the two, if they plan on keeping the Titans off the scoreboard.
Moving Mariota- The Pats will have to keep the oft-moving Mariota in check as well, on Saturday. The former Heisman winner from Oregon didn't have the best season in 2017, but played well in last week's playoff win, throwing for 205 yards and two scores. He also used his legs in the game, rushing eight times for 46 yards. The Pats have struggled mightily this season with mobile quarterbacks and Mariota is near the top of the list of such opponents. For New England to have optimal success, they will need to keep Mariota in the pocket, especially on third downs, to limit his effectiveness and get off the field.
Prediction- Though both teams are in the second round of the postseason, one blatant fact remains true; the Patriots are far better than the Titans. The only way Tennessee wins this game is if the Patriots suffer a major injury to either Gronkowski or Brady, or both, or if New England uncharacteristically turns the ball over. With all of those scenarios unlikely, the Pats should roll through the Titans and have Gillette Stadium bumping all night long. Expect New England to heat up the stadium on an expected cold night in Foxboro, by dazzling on offense and defense.
Pats 38, Titans 13