There is a game still to be played in Foxborough this weekend, despite what your resident arm-chair prognosticator suggests. "The Pats don't lose at home in the playoffs!" Except for those three times they did. "Tahmmy Boy is gonna prove that ESPN writer wrong!" Tom Brady's more worried about Jurrell Casey smacking him in the face Saturday than Seth Wickersham airing out Alex Guerrero's dirty laundry. "The Titans were lucky! No way they can pull off another road upset." It's the postseason, friends. Anything can happen.
Tennessee is fresh off a season-saving -- and for Mike Mularkey, job-saving -- wild-card comeback win over Kansas City, in which Marcus Mariota came of age and into his own. Sans DeMarco Murray, Tennessee was finally forced to rely on Derrick Henry for the full 60 minutes and reaped the benefits; the Titans racked up 202 yards on the ground and broke a season-high eight runs of at least 10 yards. In knocking off the Chiefs, Tennessee became the first club to win in the postseason after entering with a negative point, yardage and turnover differential since Tim Tebow's Broncos. (That's Mile High praise.)
New England didn't play last week, instead spending its eighth consecutive first-round bye deflecting and denying claims levied in an ESPN story. Without going into the retreaded details, the thesis was that there's TROUBLE IN PARADISE, the existence of which has been wholly denied by the Patriots' Holy Trinity (Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft). In typical Pats fashion, the focus in pressers this week has been on the next opponent (the organization is "on to Tennessee," if you will). As it should. The Pats have all the pieces in place for another Super Bowl run and are the favorites to do so in the shallow AFC, but cracks are showing -- on the defensive line, in the receiving corps, and even under center. With outside chatter amplifying, can New England escape a letdown against an upstart underdog and live up to their reputation in "motivation games"?
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans: Do it again. With Murray out again with a bum knee, Henry will be asked to carry the load for the third consecutive game. His opponent will be a friendly one. While New England has improved markedly in the secondary since the season opener, its run defense has lagged behind. New England's young front seven, starring household names Adam Butler, Eric Lee and Deatrich Wise, surrenders 4.7 yards per carry, second-worst in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Henry has had far more success running to his left, where Lee and Wise are situated, than his right this season (5.5 vs. 3.1 YPC). I need not remind Patriots sympathizers that opponent success on the ground has been a common thread in each of New England's three home playoff losses under Belichick. (Remember Ray Rice and Shonn Greene?) Tennessee's chances in this game depend on its ability to hold the ball, extend drives and set up play-action passes, Marcus Mariota's specialty. That's Henry's domain, and his alone.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots: In pubs from Bangor to New Haven, suggesting that Brady -- the G.O.A.T., the five-time Super Bowl champion, the likely MVP -- is under any sort of pressure in a divisional-round game at Gillette Stadium against an inexperienced QB and a coach named Mularkey is unadulterated blasphemy. But considering the context, Brady will be more under the microscope this week than in any postseason game in recent memory. For one, Brady is showing his age (40, FYI); he didn't fare as well in his last five games, throwing a pick in each one and seeing a dip in his completion percentage and passer rating. The tape shows Brady is taking more hits and missing more throws. His supposed successor, Jimmy Garoppolo, meanwhile flourished over his final five games across the country, calling into question whether the Pats were right to trade away a future stud. And yes, the ESPN piece didn't help Brady's case either. Gisele's husband has a favorable matchup in Tennessee, which boasts a vulnerable secondary underneath, one that, just last week, allowed a Pro Bowl tight end to run roughshod through its ranks before knocking him out. How Brady performs against such an outfit will speak to his ability to, in his fifth decade of existence, not only survive, but thrive in yet another postseason.
Matchup to Watch
Patriots RBs vs. Titans front seven: New England spent the 2017 draft loading up on big uglies but went after gadget guys in free agency in anticipation of games like these. In signing Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee to go with Dion Lewis and James White, the Pats stacked their roster with four dual-threat, any-down backs. Gillislee likely won't play this Saturday, leaving Burkhead, White and the red-hot Lewis to take advantage of one of the game's most lopsided matchups. New England nearly led the league in 2017 in receiving yards by running backs (957), while Tennessee was worst in receiving yards allowed to running backs (967) and last in receiving first downs surrendered to RBs. If the Titans' top-five run defense shuts down Lewis at the line, as it did with Kareem Hunt, look for Belichick to use his backs in the passing game to extend drives and pick up yardage outside the numbers. The last time New England played a postseason game, he did just that; White's Super Bowl-record 14 catches keyed the Pats' epic comeback against the Falcons.
The inevitable Pats-Steelers AFC Championship Game rematch is one weekend away, with two AFC South teams standing in the way. Can Tennessee spoil the Shield's ratings bonanza? I'm going to go out on a limb and say no. Bold, I know. But some truths are eternal. Try these facts on for size: Since 2001, no quarterback has ever beaten New England in his first or second career playoff start; Brady is undefeated (6-0) against Murlarkey-coached teams; and New England has reached a record six consecutive championship games. Tennessee's final deficit might surprise the Desert Illuminati, but the result won't shock a damn soul.