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Titans-Patriots: AFC Wild Card Weekend preview

The Backstory

After spending the last 10 Wild Card Weekends on a footballer's version of vacation, New England is suddenly in uncharted waters. The Patriots, by fault of their own, are playing this weekend for the first time since January 10, 2010, nearly one decade to Saturday. On that afternoon, New England was run over by Ray Rice and the Ravens from the very first play and saw its 2009 season end in a hail of boos from the Gillette Stadium faithful. The loss was soon followed by cute predictions of the downfall of the Patriots era. This time around, with burly Derrick Henry and the Titans storming into Foxborough, it might be deja vu all over again.

The Patriots finished 12-4 in 2019, one win better than last year, but enter the postseason following one of their most embarrassing defeats in years, a home loss to Bill Belichick disciple Brian Flores and the Dolphins. The defeat knocked New England out of a first-round bye, which it sorely needed this year after struggling through injuries on offense along the offensive line and receiving corps (Julian Edelman) and slowing down the stretch. New England ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' Offensive DVOA, its lowest finish since 2002, the last time the Patriots missed the postseason with a fully healthy Tom Brady. New England's offense has been vulnerable all season, and its Boogeyman defense, which had been impenetrable against inferior opponents through the first half, has shown signs of letting up, as recently as last week. That's a bad sign with the Titans coming to town, a team also coached by a Beli-boy-chick riding a 7-3 finish into the postseason.

Nine-and-seven for the fourth straight season, Tennessee looks like no Titans team that has preceded it, at least since 1999. Gone is Marcus Mariota, banished to the bench in favor of a reborn Ryan Tannehill and a dynamic downfield passing attack. Accompanying Tannehill behind the line of scrimmage is Henry, the league's leading rusher, and on the flanks, an emerging receiving threat in A.J. Brown. After playing a season's worth of postseason games under Belichick, second-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel is making his postseason coaching debut. Under another Mike (Mularkey), Tennessee advanced two years ago to lose to New England in the AFC Divisional Round after a wild wild-card win in Kansas City, but this year, the Titans get the Patriots a weekend early and on its heels.

Under Pressure

Titans DC Dean Pees: The last time New England played on Wild Card Weekend, Pees was on the Patriots sideline as defensive coordinator watching the Ravens run roughshod. The next season, Pees was in Baltimore, where he stayed eight seasons, during which the Ravens played New England thrice in the postseason, winning once. Now Pees is back in Foxborough as a DC yet again, this time alongside fellow ex-Pat Vrabel to take on the old coach Belichick -- with something to prove.

Last season, Pees' Titans defense got the best of Brady and the Pats, holding New England to 10 points, one red zone trip and 3-15 on third downs. But that was a regular season game in Nashville, merely a learning experience (one of five) for a Patriots team that channeled the loss into a Super Bowl victory. Pees' defense this year is middle-of-the-road. Harold Landry and the veteran Jurrell Casey provide much of the pass rush, while the secondary, led by Kevin Byard and former Pats DB Logan Ryan, is veteran but vulnerable (24th in passing defense). New England's offense, however, isn't firing on all cylinders, and Brady ain't what he used to be. All Pees needs is pressure up the middle on Brady and disciplined defensive back play to keep New England at bay. That time-old strategy is easier said than done, but perhaps Pees has an inside lane.

Tom Brady: The 42-year-old soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer-if-he-ever-retires has been outplayed by Ryan Tannehill over the back half of the season; Brady's 6.6 passing yards per attempt rank last among playoff QBs, while Tannehill's 9.6 rank first. Tell your 2018 self that and watch him/her spontaneously combust. Brady's woes this year can be attributed to, along with his age-induced physical decline, his uncomfortability with the receiving corps; Julian Edelman has rarely been 100 percent, N'Keal Harry is still getting warmed up and New England lacks a Gronkian tight end threat for the first time in a decade. And the problem's gotten worse over time. Brady enjoyed career-lows this season in completion percentage (56.9), passing YPA (5.9) and passer rating (80.8) after Week 9. Game to game, Brady and the passing attack is no longer the strength of New England's operation. But that can all change in the postseason, where Brady and Edelman (if he's able-bodied) thrive. Edelman trails only Jerry Rice in playoff receptions and yards, and Brady is as prolific as any QB to ever play postseason football. January pigskin is more about mastering situations and playing error-free, which the razor-focused veteran is more than capable of doing. But with less than a week to prepare this time around, TB12 is at great risk at being deep-sixed by Tennessee and the inevitability of Father Time.

Matchup to Watch

Titans receivers vs. Patriots secondary: Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate A.J. Brown and Defensive Player of the Year possibility Stephon Gilmore are likely to face off on more than one occasion in Foxborough, but they are just the faces of a bigger battle. The second-round rookie Brown is the breakout star of Tennessee's receiving corps under Arthur Smith, averaging over 100 yards per game on just 4.2 receptions per game since Week 12; his 605 yards were the most in the NFL in that span and Brown's 12.5 reception yards per target on the year was a league-high. Complemented by Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, Brown's downfield threat helped expand the Titans offense with Tannehill under center and Henry pounding the rock, but Tennessee has yet to face off against Gilmore and the defending champs. Per Pro Football Focus, Gilmore (47.4) and fellow Pats corner J.C. Jackson (37.0) each ranked in the top three in passer rating allowed this season; and neither defensive back allowed a touchdown in press coverage this season, instead snagging eight picks. That matchup would've been net positive for New England if not Gilmore's shocking down performance in Week 17. The DPOY favorite was at his worst against Miami's DeVante Parker, allowing seven receptions for 119 yards in the loss, his most surrendered since joining the Pats in 2017. With Brown coming to town, now is not the time for Gilmore to be spooked. The Boogeyman defense depends on his ability to make receivers disappear.

Prediction

Reports of the Patriots' death have been greatly exaggerated for years. How many times has New England been on to Cincinnati and then rolled over Cincinnati and all future comers? While the Patriots face an unusual challenge in hosting such a dynamic offense on the first weekend of the decade, now is not the time to write their obituary. Belichick and Co. have smothered more explosive attacks in the past, most memorably in Super Bowl LIII and the first half of the AFC title game, and they should contain Tennessee's on a frigid Saturday night in Foxborough. The end will soon come for New England on the road against more balanced opponents in Kansas City or Baltimore. But at home, the Pats will kick off their "Revenge Tour" by exacting exactly that.

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