Gridiron Experts Staff Wild Card Preview
Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots -13.5 | O/U 41.5
Other NFL Playoff Games
Brad Castronovo – You’re going to read a lot of articles this week about all the reasons why the Patriots are too good to lose to the lowly Titans. You know what? They’re probably right 99% of the time. Instead, I’m going to tell you why the Titans will upset the Patriots Saturday night, and continue their run to the AFC Championship game.
First of all, Derrick Henry is finally getting his chance to shine. Last week, he took 25 touches and turned them into 191 all-purpose yards, adding a touchdown for good measure. Henry’s gargantuan presence in the backfield does a lot for this offense because it opens up Mariota’s play-action passing repertoire. Using the run to set up the pass is a basic precept of effective football… however, things are magnified when you look at Marcus Mariota specifically. Consider this, in 2017, Mariota was the #1 rated QB (127.3) in the NFL on play action passes. On all other passes, his rating was at the bottom of all QBs that qualified, dipping below 67. Now that’s a crucial difference. Look for Corey Davis to finally break out this week. I’m calling it. Furthermore, take into account the fact that the Patriots are 30th in DVOA against opposing rushing attacks. If the Titans line plays to their potential, and Henry is able to effectively rush the ball and break off a few big chunks, the Patriots may have to shift an extra player to the box, thus shifting the emphasis to Mariota’s ability to make throws… an ability that he proved last week in Kansas City, especially underplay action calls.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Titans’ ability to win the game will hinge on whether or not they can limit Tom Brady & the passing attack. To make Brady less effective, the Titans need to develop a pass rush early. If they flounder, all bets are off, and this game could get ugly. If they come out like they did in the first half against Kansas City, they’re in trouble. However, they have high caliber players in all the right places. Gronk should see a lot of Kevin Byard, the Titans’ first-team All-Pro Safety. Brandin Cooks will likely match up with Adoree Jackson, one of the best rookie DBs in football this year, and one of the fastest men on turf. Logan Ryan will man the other side of the field against his former team. Are there holes? Certainly. But is there a chance? Absolutely. Not to mention, the Titans have one of the best run defenses in football (7th in DVOA vs opposing rushing attacks.) Jurrell Casey & Co. will undoubtedly jam up the middle and make things harder than usual for Dion Lewis. If you’d like a comprehensive account of all the reasons why the Patriots are fantastic and unbeatable, a quick search on Twitter will give you all of the data you need. Best QB of all time? Check. Best coach of all time? Check. Best Tight End of all time? Check. Enjoy those articles. I’ll close with this. There’s a lot of “off-field” noise that the Patriots are dealing with right now. 1. True or not, the ESPN article detailing Kraft, Belichick, and Brady’s relationship was certainly a distraction last week. 2. While a world-class organization like New England surely turned over every stone, I’m sure most of the team’s prep focused on a rematch with the Chiefs until last Saturday night. I question how many players and coaches were truly expecting Marcus & Co. to come to town. 3. There are countless articles circulating right now about Matt Patricia being the next coach of the Giants or the Lions. I wonder how much this is distracting him. 4. Josh McDaniels has been rumored to be a viable HC candidate this offseason. How many times has his phone rang this week? Maybe the Patriots win 31-6. No one would bat an eye. But maybe, just maybe, this is the week where we find a crack in the Patriots’ armor. Titans 31-30. Pick: Titans
Anthony Cervino – When the Tennessee Titans travel to Foxboro Field to face the New England Patriots in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, they’ll be a 13.5 point underdog, which is expected. However, while the Patriots are the Patriots and are 20-4 in home playoff games in team history — 20 of those contests occurred during Robert Kraft’s ownership of the club — the Titans could be the sleeping giant.
With a sound running game led by Derrick Henry, the Titans may not only have a shot to cover the spread, but they could also pull off the upset. How? Derrick Henry. Now, if you’ve followed me through the years, you’ll know I’m not a Henry guy nor do I get sucked into the hype of Alabama running backs. However, right now, Henry is hot. And since DeMarco Murray is already ruled out with a knee, injury, Henry is poised to receive a full workload for the second straight game. In last week’s Wild Card Round win over Kansas City, Henry went wild — pun intended. Rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries while adding another 35 yards on a pair of receptions, Henry wowed me as well as the rest of the football world with his outstanding performance, which could also seal the fate of Murray’s tenure in Tennessee, but that’s another story in itself. Facing the 20th ranked Patriots run defense — while they finished 20th in yards, they finished second to the Titans (five) in rushing touchdowns allowed (six) — Henry has a tremendous opportunity to once again gain momentum and control the clock. In that scenario, the Tom Brady-led Patriots offense would remain on the sideline while their defense is being worn down, opening the field up for Marcus Mariota to maneuver the football down the field. And although Mariota was a bust this season — rather than taking a fourth-year leap, he regressed mightily throwing for career-lows in yards (3,232) and touchdowns (13) while tossing a career-high 15 interceptions — he played efficient enough to win his first playoff game — he threw for a 205-2-1 stat line while adding another 46 yards as a rusher.
However, while the Titans must rely on Henry on the offensive side of the ball to pick up a win, their 13th ranked defense as a whole needs to step up and shut down a Patriots offense that finished 2017 ranked No. 1 in yards (6,307) and No. 2 in points scored (458). And I don’t think that happens. In a game in which the books believe will be a high-scoring affair — the Vegas over/ under is 47.5 — a New England win is likely anticipated. Patriots win, 30-16. Pick: Patriots
Phil Clark – Tennessee’s triumph during last week’s AFC Wild Card matchup in Kansas City, served as a reminder that some postseason encounters will not unfold as expected. But another upset victory by the Titans is unlikely to occur. Rather than revisiting New England’s stellar postseason record since 2001, and blending it with Tennessee’s comparative inexperience at the same level, it is best to examine both teams’ capabilities this season. Tennessee ranked just 23rd in both total offense and passing, while ranking a middling 15th in rushing, and 19th in scoring. The Titans should attempt to exploit a New England run defense that has surrendered 4.7 YPC by deploying Derrick Henry extensively behind Taylor Lewan and Quinton Spain on the left side of their formations. However, the Patriots can make neutralizing Henry their top priority, while maintaining sufficient resources to address Marcus Mariota’s mobility. Rex Burkhead, James White, and Chris Hogan will all be available within New England’s assemblage of weaponry, and Mike Mularkey’s unit will not escape with another improbable win this week. Pick: Patriots
Graham Hackney – Can you imagine if we had an AFC championship matchup featuring two teams from the AFC South? Seriously, just think about every narrative over the past few years and realize that we are only two games away from that. It won’t happen, the Patriots will not lose to the Titans. The only thing that could facilitate it would be key injuries to the Pats. Of course, I don’t want that to happen. The Titans shouldn’t be cowered going into this game; just look what the Dolphins recently achieved against New England. I don’t think it will be a walkover, but the experience of Brady, Gronk, Belichick and a whole host of less-celebrated players and coaches will see New England advance. Pick: Patriots
Michael Hauff – Wildcard weekend kicked off with some shock and awe as the Tennessee Titans would upset the Kansas City Chiefs. The jubilation was short lived however as the Titans would quickly turn their attention to Foxboro and the New England Patriots. The Titans bucked the trend they sent for themselves in the regular season as they successfully converted 8 of 13 third downs. That being said, there are two problems for the Titans in this game. The first problem is that Mariota would have to play even better than last week. It’s hard to place a significant amount of confidence in that considering that this season, he has never had consecutive games with multiple touchdown passes. The second issue for the Titans is that Bill Belichick won’t underutilize his best weapons like Andy Reid did last week with Kareem Hunt. From a statistical standpoint, Titans back Derrick Henry will do his damage but it won’t be enough. The defending Super Bowl champions are immersed in attention-grabbing headlines over the state of their franchise. Whatever the case may be, the Patriots have always found a way to overcome controversy and I don’t see that changing this Saturday. The Patriots will beat the spread, hit the under, and prepare to host the AFC championship. Pick: Patriots
Tanner Bollers – Traditionally the Patriots at home, in January, has been pretty close to a sure thing. However, this game has all the makings of a good old fashion Playoff upset: Reported turmoil in the front office with an alleged dispute between owner Robert Kraft and HC Bill Belichick. Sideline drama involving the team banning Brady’s personal doctor from being on the field. It seems like everything possible off the field is happening at the right moment to distract Brady and Co from their upcoming match vs. the Tennessee Titans. Now, I’m not relying solely on drama for this game. The matchup also plays in the Titans’ favor as well. The three teams to beat the Patriots this season (KC, CAR, MIA) have very similar attributes to Tennessee’s game. Which are a strong running game, scrambling QB who can extend plays, and a strong defensive front who can rush the passer. In New England’s three losses they’ve allowed an average of 148.3 rushing yards per game. Albeit, Jay Cutler is not the most mobile QB ever but he is slippery and can work the pocket to extend plays. I fully expect Mariota and Henry to run all over this Patriots Defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Henry rack up 150+ rushing yards this weekend. If he does, I give the edge to Tennessee 27-21. Pick: Titans
Paul Maland – Personally, I don’t buy any of the media hype of the Patriots front office and staff clashing so hard that they will implode. In fact, I believe the reports will add just the fuel that the Patriots need to get a shot at yet another championship. In years past, New England has entered the playoffs with key players like TE Rob Gronkowski on the injury report and watching from the sideline. This year, Tom Brady will take the field with a relatively healthy slew of weapons. And while I believe their offense is dynamic enough to put 30 points up in this game, their defense is allowing just 18 points per game this season to opposing teams. The Titans will look to Derrick Henry to carry a full load this week. But I believe with a true gun-slinging quarterback on the other side of the field, Henry’s lack of dynamic ability in the passing-game will shine through as they trail. Conversely, I believe Patriots RB Dion Lewis will be able to carve up the Titans defense both on the ground and through the air. Give me the Patriots in a 30-13 victory at home. Pick: Patriots
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