When the Titans have the ball: The late-season revivals of Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry have given the Titans hope and identity. For most of the season, they couldn’t figure out what they wanted to be — vacillating between a power and an option team, trying to throw deep but resigned to dump off.
Now that Mariota has regained some movement ability after being banged up, he’s more dangerous. The Titans’ receivers might not separate well, but Mariota can buy time. The power running of Henry (156 yards, TD in wild-card win over Chiefs) gives the Patriots a real task, as he gained a ton of yards after contact last week.
Rishard Matthews is the one real deep threat, but he’s been quiet of late. Eric Decker emerged from exile to catch a huge TD last week, but he’s not a matchup concern. The Titans really need to get Delanie Walker going. He woke up vs. the Chiefs and can find cracks in the Patriots’ secondary.
New England’s defense comes in rested and in better shape than their numbers suggest. But can they pressure Mariota — especially from the interior? That’s questionable. It’s likely they play more for turnovers than stops.
When the Patriots have the ball: Tom Brady has carved up far better secondaries than this, and the Titans looked incapable of stopping Travis Kelce early last week. But when he was knocked out, the Titans buttoned up. The Chiefs scored on the drive Kelce went down but only completed 5-of-10 passes for 33 yards in the second half.
Look for Brady to target Rob Gronkowski early and often. The Titans simply don’t have many options to stop him. This doesn’t feel like a big Brandin Cooks game, as ex-Patriots CB Logan Ryan could be tasked with stopping him. But look for the Patriots’ running backs to be used as pass catchers. The Titans allowed nearly 1,000 yards receiving to opposing backs in the regular season.
The Titans’ defense is one of the best at keeping everything in front of them. They might allow a lot of passes and let you move downfield, but they make you do it station to station.
Keeping Brady upright has been a problem at times for the Patriots. They’ll have their hands full with stopping Titans DL Jurrell Casey, who was a wrecking crew last week. He not only closed down run lanes quickly but also showed burst inside as a pass rusher.
Special teams: Both teams have experience and skill in the kicking game. The Titans’ Brett Kern has a booming leg and can flip the field quickly. Both kickers, Stephen Gostkowski (Patriots) and Ryan Succop (Titans), have been very steady on field-goal tries 40 yards and in — zero combined misses in the regular season.
The big edge here for New England is in punt- and kick-return coverage. They bottle up opposing return games, and the Titans have been quiet on both, despite having speedy Adoree’ Jackson back there.
Coaching: Mike Mularkey saved his job with the wild-card win, and he has a veteran staff led by 80-year-old master Dick LeBeau. It wasn’t pretty early defensively last week, but LeBeau’s defense clamped down after halftime.
But Brady has had a history of besting LeBeau’s defenses, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels should come in with a fresh gameplan. This technically could be the final game for either of Bill Belichick’s coordinators in New England, McDaniels or defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, the latter of whom is heavily rumored to be the Detroit Lions’ next coach.
Prediction: The Titans won a thriller last week and showed true grit. But this feels like a mismatch. Outside of career days from Mariota and Henry, or Brady just falling apart (he was more turnover-prone down the stretch), we have a hard time picking the upset. This could be a New England rout. The Patriots are 16-3 in playoff games at Gillette Stadium under Belichick, outscoring their past six postseason opponents there by 105 points.