The Patriots are your AFC East champions, and if it feels like it happened overnight, well, that’s’ because it did. When the Dolphins lost on Monday Night Football, New England clinched its seventh straight AFC East crown, and 13th in the last 15 years. The Patriots winning the AFC East is becoming as common as snow in the winter. And speaking of snow, the last time this week’s opponent, the Tennessee Titans, traveled to Gillette Stadium in 2009, they lost in a blizzard to the Patriots, 59-0.
There’s no snow in this week’s forecast – and it’s doubtful the Patriots can pull of a margin of victory as high as the last one – but the 3-10 Titans don’t exactly pose the greatest threat to a Patriots team that had a nice bounce-back win in Houston last week.
Then again, with the injuries continuing to pile up, the Patriots can’t take any team for granted.
Here’s what to watch for Sunday (1 p.m. kickoff, WBZ - CBS):
Who’s going to run the ball?
Just under a month-and-a-half ago, the Patriots running game was clicking on all cylinders behind the dynamic duo of LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. Then Lewis went down with a torn ACL against the Redskins. Flash-forward to Sunday in Houston, and Blount went down with a hip injury – and now he’s out for the season, too. So, who’s left? Brandon Bolden has been serviceable in fill-in duty, but he’s also an important player on special teams. James White is more of a pass-catching back than a rusher. The team signed former Broncos running back Montee Ball to the practice squad, and is reportedly interested in veteran Steven Jackson. Yes, the Patriots lean on Brady and the passing game, but not having a legit back like Blount is a real concern.
While the Titans aren’t going anywhere this season, they at least have reason to believe the future is bright. Drafted second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Marcus Mariota has put together a nice rookie season. In 11 games, Mariota has thrown for 2,786 yards and 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He’s rushed for 252 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was an 87-yard run, and even caught a touchdown pass.
“He’s very athletic but then he can throw the ball well,” Bill Belichick said. “Makes good decisions on the run and he’s got a lot of options at receiver and tight end when that happens.”
The Dont’a Hightower injury went under the radar once Rob Gronkowski got hurt, but the truth is he’s the most important part of that defense right now. With Jamie Collins healthy again, getting those two back in the middle of things will be a welcomed sight. Devin McCourty doesn’t look to play this week, so the Patriots will need all the help on defense they can get.