Five things to watch for this Saturday night when the Patriots take on the Titans in the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs.
Marcus Mariota had the highlight of wild card weekend, throwing a touchdown pass to himself (Mariota’s pass was deflected by old friend Darrelle Revis and back into his own hands), and leading his team to the biggest upset of the playoffs so far. But Mariota was far from great in the win over Kansas City, getting picked off and finishing the contest with just 205 yards in the air and a weak 88.8 passer rating. Many were quick to say that the win could propel Mariota into the upper-echelon of QBs in the NFL. That’s a bit much, as Mariota finished the 2017 regular season as the 27th best QB in the league (passer rating), having been beat out by players like Jay Cutler, Jacoby Brissett and Tyrod Taylor.
Brady’s top target?
The Titans would be wise to double and triple-team Rob Gronkowski on Saturday night. As the Steelers found out last month, Gronk in single coverage in a big game turns into a nightmare in a hurry. So, who will step up in the passing game for the Pats? Malcolm Mitchell is unlikely to suit up for the Pats for the playoffs, so one of the receivers in the second or third tier of the Pats depth chart is going to have to come up big. Will it be Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Kenny Britt or Phillip Dorsett?
The Patriots absolutely own the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs in the Bill Belichick – Tom Brady era. The Pats are an incredible 11-2 in this round since the 2001 season, with the only two losses coming at Denver in 2005 and at home against the Jets in 2010. This game against the Titans feels a lot like the 2011 playoffs when the Pats hosted the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in the divisional round. That Broncos team upset Pittsburgh the week prior and had already maxed out. The Titans’ win over the Chiefs in Kansas City was their max out moment.
Dion Lewis came up huge in this round of the playoffs last year as he had a 98-yard kickoff return for a TD, a 13-yard TD reception, and a 1-yard TD run in the Pats’ 34-16 win over Houston. Early in this campaign, the Pats were going with a running back by committee approach by Lewis has shown he can carry the load as the Pats’ featured back. Since the weekend after Thanksgiving, Lewis has averaged 85.0 rushing yards per game and has three rushing touchdowns. He’s also been exceptional in the passing game, as he had six catches for 40 yards and a TD in the Pats’ season finale win over the Jets. James White is expected to be back from injury Saturday night, so it could be a big night for Patriots backs catching balls out of the backfield.
Don't get run over
In the Pats’ two worst outings of the season (the 42-27 loss to Kansas City on opening night and the 27-20 Monday night loss in Miami last month), the Pats were shredded by an opposing running back. Kareem Hunt had 148 yards rushing and 98 yards receiving in Week 1 against the Pats and Miami’s Kenyan Drake had 114 yards rushing and 79 yards receiving on Dec. 11. Tennessee’s Derrick Henry is not as much of a dual threat as Hunt or Drake, but he was the best player on the field in the Titan’s win at Kansas City last week, rushing for 156 yards and a touchdown. The Pats were 20th in the NFL this season in rush defense and will have to tighten things up Saturday night if they want to advance to their seventh straight AFC Championship game.