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Six matchups that will determine the result of Titans-Patriots

There are some really good strength on strength matchups in this game.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I wrote that this version of the Tennessee Titans is nothing like your father’s version of the team. This Titans crew has a dynamic, high-flying offense that hasn’t been stopped since Ryan Tannehill took over the controls ten games ago, something we haven’t seen here since the 2003 Titans led by MVP Steve McNair.

Well, this New England Patriots team isn’t your father’s Patriots either, not really anyway. For one, they’re playing on wildcard weekend which is the first time they’ve done that in nine years. The last time they played in the first round of the playoffs, things didn’t go great for them as they were plastered at home 33-14 by Ray Rice’s Ravens.

However, the strangeness doesn’t stop there. This is the first time Tom Brady and the New England offense have ranked outside the top ten in Football Outsiders Offensive DVOA ratings since 2003. They check in at 11th this year after a decade and a half that saw them fall from the top five only twice. Their weighted DVOA — which puts a greater emphasis on more recent results — is worse, checking in at 15th in the league. This is a struggling offensive football team that’s largely been carried by a great defense. It’s more similar to some of the early Brady teams in that sense than the recent run of offense-led Pats squads.

That brings me to my next difference between this Patriots team and the traditional Bill Belichick team we’ve grown so accustomed to expecting every year. The Pats are well known for playing their best football down the stretch. When the weather turns cold and you can see warm clouds of gridiron exhaust puffing out from behind facemasks, you expect to see a dominant New England. How many times has the media rushed to declare the end of this dynasty in September or October only to look like fools in December and January?

Here are the Patriots records, winning percentage, and point differential by month from 2001 through 2018:

  • September: 41-18 (0.695) +354
  • October: 59-16 (0.787) +693
  • November: 50-18 (0.735) +585
  • December: 65-13 (0.833) +906

This year, things have been a bit different:

  • September: 4-0 +95
  • October: 4-0 +94
  • November: 2-1 -6
  • December: 2-3 +12

Part of that can be explained by schedule. The Patriots opened 2019 with a run that saw them play the Steelers, Dolphins, Jets, Bills, Redskins, Giants, Jets, and Browns in September and October. That easy opening stretch gave way to a much tougher close with the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans, Chiefs, Bengals, Bills, and Dolphins.

None of this is to say the Patriots are an easy mark this weekend. They’ve got the championship DNA that has been earned over two decades worth of dominance and we’re still talking about a team that’s 20-3 in Foxborough in the playoffs since 2001. They’re just a different version than the one that we’re used to seeing steamroll into January.

The Titans enter this game as the hotter team, winning seven of their last ten and riding an offense that has been among the league’s best over the past three months. They’ve scored at least 20 points in ten straight games and have scored 35 or more in four of their last seven outings.

This figures to be one of the most intriguing matchups of the weekend. Will the upstart Titans prove themselves a true contender or will the Patriots systematically smash their dreams like they’ve done to so many others over their run of unprecedented dominance? The results of these six matchups will go a long way towards giving us that answer.

Logan Ryan vs Julian Edelman

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Much of the storyline around the Patriots (relative) offensive struggles has centered around Tom Brady’s lack of trust in his pass catchers... besides Edelman. The 33-year old slot receiver had his best season as a pro in 2019, posting 1,117 yards and 6 touchdowns.

Lately, things have been tough for Edelman though. Knee and shoulder injuries — the latter of which has been described as “worse than you can possibly imagine” — have limited him in recent weeks, even leading to a reduced snap count against Cincinnati and Buffalo. Over the past three weeks, Edelman has just 10 catches on 18 targets for 107 yards and no touchdowns. He’s clearly been limited physically, but then again, this is the playoffs and you know a guy like Edelman is going to leave it all on the field in Foxborough Saturday night.

Playoff Edelman is a different animal altogether. He’s second all-time behind Jerry Rice with 115 career playoff receptions. Over his last 13 postseason starts, he’s averaged over 8 catches and 102 yards and has at least 80 receiving yards in 11 of those games. Healthy or not, Edelman is a massive threat.

Lining up across from the Patriots top receiver on most snaps will be his former teammate, Logan Ryan. After practicing against him everyday for four years and then locking horns with him as opponents last season, no corner is more familiar with Edelman than Ryan. That familiarity cuts both ways though, and in the Titans matchup with the Patriots in 2018, Edelman was one of the very few bright spots for New England’s offense, tallying 9 catches for 104 yards. Not all of that came against coverage from Ryan — he was tagged with allowing 3 catches for 42 yards on 4 targets in that game by PFF — but I’d expect to see these two matched up plenty in this game.

Ryan is having another very good season in his third and final year of the three year, $30M contract he signed before the 2017 season. He leads the team with 18 pass breakups, 4 forced fumbles, and 113 tackles. Ryan is also 4th on the team with 4.5 sacks. He’s an intregal part of the Titans defense and he’ll be crucial to their efforts to stop the Patriots top receiver.

A.J. Brown vs Stephon Gilmore

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Brown is the hottest receiver in the NFL, leading the league in receiving yards (605) and tied for second in touchdowns (5) in the six games since Tennessee came out of their Week 11 bye. He’s particularly dangerous after the catch, leading the NFL in average yards after catch above expectation per NFL Next Gen Stats. Brown is generating an average of 4.9 yards more than expected per catch, a full 2 yards per catch more than the second most over-productive pass catcher: Titans tight end Jonnu Smith.

Brown seems likely to draw Defensive Player of the Year candidate Stephon Gilmore in shadow coverage in this matchup. The Patriots have used the All-Pro corner to follow their opponent’s best receiver in almost every game this season. In the past, New England had been known to double or bracket the top option while placing their best corner on the number two receiver, but I would be surprised if they we didn’t see Gilmore on Brown more often than not.

Gilmore has been targeted 96 times per PFF charting, resulting in 47 catches (48.9%) for 624 yards (6.5 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions. Almost 20% of those 624 yards came last week when Gilmore allowed 7 catches on 9 targets for 119 yards as the Dolphins DeVante Parker got the best of the Patriots star corner.

Expect to see a locked in Gilmore in this game though. After getting embarrassed last week, and facing the team that burned him during their matchup last year, the All-Pro is going to be highly motivated to make a statement on a big stage.

Against a stingy Patriots defense, the Titans are going to need some of the big plays that Brown has become known for. If the rookie star is stifled by Gilmore, the Titans will need Corey Davis — who has shined in both his previous career matchups with New England — to step up and win one on one opportunities on the opposite side.

Tom Brady vs Dean Pees

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

During last season’s Week 10 matchup, Dean Pees tortured Brady with a bevy of blitzes and disguised coverage looks, confusing the veteran quarterback. Brady finished with a final line of 21 of 41 (51.2%) for 254 yards (6.2 YPA) and no touchdowns.

Pees spent six years in New England as a linebackers coach and then defensive coordinator so he knows Brady better than most DCs. However, that hasn’t always meant automatic success. Brady has gotten his licks in against the veteran coordinator over the years, including a 33 of 50 (66%) for 367 yards and 3 touchdowns performance in a 35-31 playoff win over the Ravens in 2014.

Brady’s 2019 has been a down year on multiple fronts. His 24 touchdown passes were the fewest in a healthy season since 2006 and his 6.6 YPA was his lowest since 2002. Some of that is likely a lack of trust with his rotating cast of receivers, but Brady is also 42 years old and has been dealing with an elbow injury on his throwing arm in recent weeks. He’s completed over 60% of his passes just once in the past seven games.

Will Brady be able to turn back the clock with another performance like his 26 of 33 (78.8%) for 271 yards and a touchdown showing against the Bills in Week 16? Smart money doesn’t bet against Brady in the playoffs, but that would be going against his current run of form.

Pees’ defense started red hot in 2019, becoming one of just four teams in the past decade to hold their first seven opponents to 20 points or fewer. However, they’ve struggled down the stretch as the injuries have piled up in the secondary and the offenses they’ve faced have gotten tougher.

The biggest concern for the Titans, however, has been their red zone defense. Tennessee has given up touchdowns on 68.1% of their opponent’s trips inside the 20, the 2nd worst mark in the NFL. The Patriots are converting just 50.0% of their trips for 6 (26th in the NFL) so this is a weakness on weakness matchup that could prove critical to the outcome of this game.

Ryan Tannehill vs Bill Belichick

NFL: Preseason-New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The person responsible for calling plays for the Patriots defense has been somewhat of a mystery all season. Preseason reports seemed to indicate it would be linebackers coach Jerod Mayo. By early November, the word was that Steve Belichick — Bill’s son and the Patriots secondary coach — was the man behind the game day decisions. Just a few weeks ago, Andy Reid seemed to be under the impression that the elder Belichick was calling the games himself.

Regardless of who is actually calling the plays, we know that Bill Belichick is the primary architect of this defense and they’ve had an incredible season. The Patriots have the top ranked defense in the NFL by DVOA, largely on the strength of the best pass defense in the league.

Without the benefit of an elite pass rusher — linebacker Jamie Collins leads the team with 7 sacks — the Patriots rely largely on a complex variety of stunts and blitzes to generate pressure when they need it. The Titans have struggled with stunts and blitz pickup all season — though they’ve been a little better in recent weeks — so this should be a significant concern for the Tennessee offense.

The best way to deter the Patriots from blitzing and stunting and doing all the things that seem to give the Titans offensive line fits? Run the ball effectively and avoid third downs, especially third and long situations. Opponents have a league-low success rate of just 12% when passing in 3rd and 6 or more situations against the Patriots, less than half the NFL-average rate of 29% per Sharp Football Stats. New England is still very good in 3rd and short, but the success rates jump to 52% on runs and 43% on passes when facing 3rd and 5 or less.

Ryan Tannehill has been outstanding against the blitz in 2019, though his passing stats don’t capture the high sack rate that has plagued this team throughout the season.

The biggest factor in successfully beating a blitz is recognizing it quickly and knowing where to go with the ball to beat it. Tannehill will need to constantly be on alert for the blitz in this game.

His experience playing against Belichick — 11 starts over the course of his career — should help Tannehill, as should the insights from Arthur Smith, Marcus Mariota, and the rest of the Titans offense that faced the Patriots defense with success last season.

Tannehill has been red hot over the last ten weeks and part of the reason for that has been his ability to consistently get the Titans in the right playcall at the line of scrimmage. Arthur Smith has given the Titans QB a lot of leeway at the line of scrimmage and Tannehill has rewarded that trust with some excellent checks. The chess match between Tannehill and the Patriots defense will be a fascinating game within the game to watch.

Derrick Henry vs the Patriots Run Defense

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The current forecast in Foxborough is calling for a 90% chance of rain and temperatures dropping from the low 40s to the low 30s throughout the game. The precipitation is part of a winter storm named — and I’m not making this up — Winter Storm Henry. Did I mention that Saturday is Derrick Henry’s birthday too?

While rain by itself doesn’t impact the passing game as much as wind (the wind speeds are currently only expected to be between 5 and 10 mph), it would make the run game a little more attractive for both offenses. With the 2019 NFL rushing title holder toting the rock, that kind of game would favor Tennessee.

Football Outsiders has Tennessee’s rushing attack ranked 5th in the NFL while New England’s checks in at 16th. The Patriots run defense has the slight advantage, checking in at 6th in run defense DVOA compared to the Titans 10th ranked unit.

The Patriots linebackers in their base defense are big — Ja’Whaun Bentley, Dont’a Hightower, and Jamie Collins all check in north of 250 pounds — but they’re not particularly fast. The Titans should have a chance for some success in the outside zone and crack toss runs that they’ve excelled with this season.

Kenny Vaccaro & Jayon Brown vs James White

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Outside of Edelman, the other player that Brady trusts explicitly is running back James White. New England’s pass catching back was targeted 95 times. Only the Chargers targeted backs more often than the Patriots in 2019.

White is more receiver than back, but the Patriots often use him as a substitute for the running game, hitting him on flares and option routes out of the backfield for easy short completions.

The Titans have a few options for defending White. Jayon Brown is one of the better coverage linebackers in the league and could probably handle some snaps matched up with White, but I think Kenny Vaccaro might ultimately be the best fit. White’s game is all quickness and change of direction so the quicker the defender, the better.

Assuming that the Patriots will be a pushover at home, in January, with the NFL’s best defense would be a massive mistake, but it’s hard not to like this matchup on paper for the Titans. The Patriots lack the dynamic threats in the passing game that have troubled Tennessee’s secondary since Malcolm Butler went down. The Titans should be able to generate some success running at the edges of the New England defense.

Preventing turnovers will be critical as well. In the Patriots 30 playoff wins since 2001, they’ve generated 60 turnovers. In their 10 playoff losses, they’ve turned their opponents over just 7 times. Ball security in what is expected to be wet weather will be key for both sides in this game.

The Titans don't have to do much to change their blueprint at the end of the day. If the offensive line and Derrick Henry can get on track like they have for most of the last ten weeks, it will open up the play action passing attack that Ryan Tannehill has shredded defense with all season.