8:15 PM EST, CBS – Line: Patriots -13.5, Over/Under: 48
It’s a case of the Eternal Empire batting the Young Upstarts in the second entry in this Division Round Weekend, as the Top-Seeded New England Patriots host the surprising Tennessee Titans from Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts, in a matchup that many are describing as one-sided as they come. After a 9-Year Drought, the Titans (9-7, 2nd in AFC South) have returned to the Playoffs in style, upsetting the Fourth-Seeded Kansas City Chiefs in last Saturday’s Wild Card Playoffs. Trailing 21-3 at Halftime, Tennessee slowly grinded their way back into the contest, outscoring the home side 19-0 in the Second Half, on the strength of some truly inspired pay from the likes of Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry. Simply put, the pair of Heisman Winners were outstanding during this rally, with Mariota (62.0%, 3,232 YDS, 6.37 NY/A, 13 TD, 15 INT) overcoming a miserable First Half to complete 19-of-31 Attempts for 205 Yards, a pair of Touchdowns and an Interception, with the bizarre distinction of one of those Touchdown Passes being to himself, as the Third-Year Quarterback saw a pass deflected by a Chiefs’ Defender fall back into his arms, allowing him to barrel into the End Zone in one of the strangest plays that you’ll ever see on the grid iron. Henry (176 CAR, 744 YDS, 5 TD), on the other hand, was dominant throughout the affair, trampling Kansas City’s inept Defense to the tune of 156 Yards and a Touchdown on Twenty-Three Carries, accounting for Fifty-Eight Yards on his team’s epic, 17-Play, 8:29-Drive to begin the Third Quarter, which swung the momentum of the game into their favor. On the day, the Titans ended up possessing the ball for 32:28, churning out Twenty-Three First Downs, 397 Total Yards, including a whopping 202 on the ground, all the while masterfully converting on 8-of-13 Third Downs. Last Saturday’s win was significant for a variety of reasons, as the Titans earned their first Playoff Win since 2003, without the services of the other half of their dynamic Backfield Duo DeMarco Murray (184 CAR, 659 YDS, 6 TD), who missed the contest due to a lingering knee injury, with that reported Third-Degree MCL Tear sidelining him again for today’s meeting with the Patriots. It was also a big deal for Mike Mularkey, whose status as Head Coach had been on shaky ground for weeks, with reports out of Nashville claiming that if his charges couldn’t make any Postseason Progress then he would in all likelihood be relieved of his duties. Then again, that was the exact same case in their Season Finale 15-10 beating of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a triumph that officially punched their ticket to the Playoffs. In fact, mmediately after last weekend’s win, Titans Ownership publicly issued their confidence in the veteran skipper, though we all know just how easy it is for these individuals to change their minds. Either way, progressing any further into this Postseason will require something greater than their effort in the Second Half against Kansas City, though it would be unrealistic to believe that they would be able to overcome such a deficit once again, particularly in New England where the franchise hasn’t enjoyed any kind of success since 1993, when they were the Houston Oilers. Mularkey and his Staff must craft a Gameplan that will revolve around dominating Time of Possession, relegating one of the more prolific Offenses in the league to the sideline, while Mariota must play a major role against a Patriots’ Defense that was very susceptible to Mobile Quarterbacks this season (which we’ll dive more into shortly). The 24-Year Old is at his best when he’s able to break free from the Pocket, buying time for his Receiving Corps to break free of Coverage and get downfield. Even the threat of his mobility has proven enough to give opposing Defenses pause, particularly on Third Down, where he’s been nearly as efficient as his counterpart under Center in New England; Mariota has completed 55.3% of his Attempts on Third Down this season, passing for 899 Yards, with Four Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, all the while sporting 73.7 Passer Rating, ranking Sixth Overall, while rushing for another Seventy-Five Yards and a score in such situations. All in all, Hawaiian Native has personally converted on Third Down sixty-three times, making him a point of emphasis for the Patriots’ Defense, which is always among the league’s finest in terms of situational defending.
Meanwhile, it was a rougher week than expected for the Patriots (13-3, 1st in AFC East), despite the fact that they had the week off after capturing the No. One Seed in the AFC for the third time in the last four years. Controversy, dissension, and scandal were the words that ultimately described the news of the reported rift in the organization between their three pillars, namely Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft. It was a fascinating tale revolving around Brady’s desire to play well into his 40’s (which is unprecedented at his position), the role of his erstwhile Personal Trainer, whose influence in the Lockerroom has certainly ruffled the feathers of Belichick, and the fact that Kraft decreed that his longtime Head Coach swiftly trade Backup Quarterback (and presumed heir to Brady’s throne) Jimmy Garoppolo for just a Second Round Pick (seriously?), because Brady felt “threatened” by his understudy’s presence. While that is definitely a lot to digest, what makes the story so interesting is the fact that one of the most successful runs in sports history could be felled by nothing more than the disparate egos of three men, which is absolutely shocking given the franchise’s hallmarks of teamwork, chemistry, and unity, each of which serving as a foundational piece of the Patriot Way. Of course, this team has been no stranger to controversy over the years, with various scandals such as Spygate and Deflategate each occupying their own unique place in New England lore. However, what shouldn’t get lost in all of this is how they’ve oftentimes responded after such stories; after Spygate in 2006, the Pats went on a torrid, unbeaten run during the Regular Season, boasting a perfect 16-0 campaign before falling in sensational fashion in the Super Bowl, while just last year they overcame an early 4-Game Suspension to Brady (for his role in Deflategate) to author the greatest comeback in Super Bowl History, securing their fifth Lombardi Trophy since 2001. Granted, the timing of this report is very suspect, though most in the posrting world figure that they’ll take out their frustrations on the Titans, who at this point may simply be just happy to be in the Playoffs after such a long absence. Brady (66.3%, 4,577 YDS, 7.10 NY/A, 32 TD, 8 INT), in particular seems primed to explode, for at this point of his hallowed career, a Bye Week is likely just what his body needed. At the age of 40 and now in his eighteenth season, the 2-Time MVP has carried the weight of the Offense, a burden that isn’t necessarily ideal for a Quarterback in the twilight of his career; Brady led the NFL in both Passing Attempts (581) and Passing Yards (4,577) in 2017, steering an at times one-dimensional Offense to 28.6 Points (2nd Overall) on a league-best 406.8 Total Yards (1st Overall). With that said, the 13-time Pro Bowler certainly showed some wear and tear down the stretch, completing just 59.4% of his Attempts for an average of 236.3 Yards on 6.31 Net Yards per Attempt, with Six Touchdowns and Four Interceptions, while taking Eight Sacks for a loss of Forty-Three Yards. Pressure is something to keep an eye, for protecting him is of the utmost priority at this stage of the campaign; after being sacked a scant fifteen times in 2016, Brady was dropped thirty-five times this season, behind an Offensive Line that is missing Right Tackle Marcus Cannon (Ankle), who was placed on Injured Reserve. And speaking of pressure, New England must apply some of their own to the aforementioned Mariota, whose mobility poses a real challenge to Belichick and his charges. Early in the season when they were getting shredded on a weekly basis, the Patriots’ Defense was having the damnedest time bottling up Mobile Quarterbacks, with three specific examples coming to mind: Alex Smith, Deshaun Watson, and Cam Newton. In those contests, Brady & Co. went just 1-2, with the Defense yielding 371, 342, 360 Total Yards to those three Quarterbacks, who rushed for a cumulative Eighty-Eight Yards and a score, with their teams in general averaging 36.0 Points on 380.0 Total Yards. Furthermore, they simply couldn’t get off the field against those three opponents, with the Chiefs, Texans, and Panthers converting on 16-of-34 Third Downs, translating to 47.1%, which certainly runs counter to Belichick’s Gameplan. Granted, this unit has stiffened up mightily since their early struggles, but at the same time, they haven’t faced many mobile threats at that position over the remainder of the season.