Psst… there’s an AFC Divisional Round game this weekend, and the Patriots are playing in it.
You may have forgotten, as basically all the talk around New England has been surrounding the either very real or much exaggerated drama between Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
But whether or not you agree with the Jimmy Garoppolo trade and regardless of your theory as to why it was made, the Patriots host the Tennessee Titans this Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.
And though the Titans finished the regular season just 9-7 and were certainly not thought to make it this far, if the Patriots want to advance they’ll have to be focus on the Titans a lot more than the rest of New England is.
Distractions, though, are nothing new to the Patriots – and they’ve been able to overcome them more often than not.
So they go into this game already knowing that while much of the Titans’ firepower comes from their quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry, the Titans’ defense behind their well-respected defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau provides problems as well.
A quick look at the basic stats won’t blow you away: The Titans were around the middle of the pack in yardage allowed per game (328, 13th in NFL) and points allowed per game (22.3, 17th in NFL). But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there are enough playmakers on this side of the ball to cause problems for Brady and Co.
And it starts with their defensive front seven – which if you look at the years in which the Patriots have lost in the postseason, it’s been when the opponent’s defensive line is too much for the Patriots’ offensive line (think: Giants and Broncos).
The Titans actually ranked 4th in rushing yards allowed, with just 88.8 per game. They held Chiefs rookie stud Kareem Hunt to just 42 yards in last week’s win. Jarell Casey is a name you’ll hear Saturday night, a player on that unit that Belichick has called “one of the top players in the league” due to his quickness and strength, among other things.
But it doesn’t end there.
Safety Kevin Byard was tied for the NFL lead in interceptions this year with eight, and don’t forget old friend Logan Ryan, a tough corner who thrived in matchups here in New England. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard had a career year, according to Belichick. Woodyard finished the season with a team-high 124 tackles, including ten for losses.
“He’s tackled, he’s made plays in the running game, he’s rushed the quarterback, made plays there, hits on the quarterback and tackles for loss, sacks,” Belichick said of Woodyard. “He’s been a very productive pass defender or end and tackler in their blitz-zone schemes and all of the coverages that they play.”
With an extra week of rest under them, the Patriots hope to have wide receiver Chris Hogan and running backs James White and Rex Burkhead active.
But as has been the case for the majority of the season, Rob Gronkowski will look to make an impact. The Titans defense ranked in the lower-third of the league when it came to defending tight ends, allowing an average of 4.82 receptions and 55.35 yards, according to CBSsports.com. Expect the Patriots to get Gronk involved early – if he isn’t needed in the blocking game.