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Titans vs. Patriots preview: 5 questions with Pats Pulpit

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NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week Bernd Buchmasser of Pats Pulpit was nice enough to answer 5 questions about today’s matchup between the Patriots and Titans.

1. The Patriots have been left for dead quite a few times over the last few years only to end up in the Super Bowl. So many people are counting them out this year. Is this the year it is finally over? Why or why not?

All good things (or bad, depending on your perspective) must come to an end, so I can see why people get the impression New England’s reign might soon be history. That being said, the facts should not be ignored: the team went 12-4 this year and won the AFC East yet again behind the NFL’s top scoring defense. Yes, they struggled on offense for much of the year. Yes, the team is among the oldest in football. Yes, last week’s loss to the Dolphins was bad. But if there is one truth in the NFL it is to never count out Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — at least I know I am not yet ready to do that.

While Brady’s play is no longer on the same level as his historic 2015-2017 run, he is still among the smartest players in football and one capable of running the offense successfully (just look at New England’s Week 16 win over Buffalo). Belichick, meanwhile, remains the NFL’s premier head coach. Add a strong defensive and kicking game operation and you get a team still capable of making some noise in the postseason this year despite the offensive inconsistency. Will this be enough to make let alone win the Super Bowl? It’s tough to tell. The Broncos won a championship this way a few years back, so there certainly is precedent. But even if the Patriots fail to earn another title, calling off the dynasty might be a premature move — at least until Brady calls it a career.

2. Earlier in the year the Patriots defense was winning match-ups for fantasy football players across the world on a weekly basis. They have cooled off since then. What was different earlier in the year to now?

There are four factors that contributed to that in my opinion:

1.) The schedule: New England played some sub-par offenses over the first half of the season and did what it was expected to do against them, which is dominating. The same thing did not happen against the likes of the Ravens and Texans.

2.) Teams adapted better: Early on during the year, the Patriots’ aggressiveness caught teams by surprise and they failed to catch up with it. It took a few weeks before clubs started to get a feel for how New England’s new-look 3-4-based defense — the team played primarily a 4-3 defense for much of the past decade — worked, but they have since adapted comparatively well.

3.) The lack of offense: Bill Belichick often speaks about complementary football, but the Patriots have struggled in this department as of late, especially on the offensive side of the ball. With New England in more close games over the season’s second half, teams did not have to take as many chances against an opportunistic defense and were able to find success. They also did this because:

4.) Turnovers: The Patriots had a big defensive play seemingly every week to start the season, but teams no longer having to play as aggressively against New England led to a decline in interceptions etc. The team feasted on big plays earlier during the year, but the last few weeks have been an issue.

All in all, I still think this is a defense capable of winning a championship but it takes some improved offense to help lift some pressure off of it.

3. How do you see the Patriots scheming in the secondary to stop A.J. Brown? Will he get the Stephon Gilmore treatment?

While defensive versatility is one of the Patriots’ biggest defensive strengths, the team has been most productive when running a press-man scheme — one that includes heavy doses over Cover 1 and the occasional Cover 0 call as well. How does Brown fit into this? There are two ways I can see New England play him:

1.) Use Stephon Gilmore one-on-one against him.

2.) Use the number two perimeter cornerback — either J.C. Jackson or Jason McCourty — with safety help over the top.

The Patriots have used both tactics against number one receivers in the past, so I would not be surprised if they went with one over the other (or used both). But whatever they do, they know that Brown is a big-play threat worth paying special attention to — and one they need to find a way to challenge at the line of scrimmage to mess up his timing with Ryan Tannehill no matter if he is running deep or short routes. Getting him off a rhythm early on will be imperative, so I can see New England use Gilmore on him early on and then maybe mix things up a bit later to break the coverage patterns.

4. Who is an under the radar player that will have a big impact on the outcome of this game?

Since we’ve been speaking of Brown, I’m going with another rookie receiver: N’Keal Harry. The Patriots’ first-round pick has missed much of his freshman year in the NFL due to a nagging ankle injury, but he has come along nicely as of late and is now the team’s number three receiver behind Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu. As such, he is usually playing somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels indicated earlier this week that he would be open to giving him more action in the playoffs.

This would make sense, too, considering that the Patriots’ receivers have struggled to consistently get open this season. Harry is still raw and also no safe bet to beat his opponent every time, but he has shown some encouraging traits: from being able to out-muscle cornerbacks at the top of his routes, to winning back-shoulder throws. I can therefore see New England use Harry quite a bit against Tennessee: from a talent-perspective he is probably the team’s best perimeter receiver, and one capable to make life easier for both Tom Brady and the other pass catchers.

5. There was so much talk at the beginning of the year about Tom Brady having the ability to opt out of his contract after the season. How many more years do you see the Patriots being led by the combination of Bill Belichick and Brady?

Brady has always said that he wants to play until he is 45 (whether this means retiring around his 45th birthday or after his age 45 season remains to be seen), but realistically I can see him go two more years in New England regardless of his current contract status — I do expect the team to re-sign him to a two-year deal that includes an option for the second season, after all. This would make sense, too: two seasons would give the team more time to find a replacement option and assess whether or not rookie backup Jarrett Stidham could potentially be able to fill Brady’s shoes one day. The Patriots used a similar plan when they invested a second-round draft choice in Jimmy Garoppolo, even though Brady spoiled their plans by winning three Super Bowls after Garoppolo was drafted.

One thing is certain, though: we are in the home stretch of Brady’s career, and the next few years will be huge for the team’s long-term outlook.