FOXBOROUGH — When looking into the Patriots-Titans matchup Saturday night at Gillette Stadium on Wild Card Weekend, it isn’t hard to find where the game will be decided.
The Patriots’ defense against the Titans’ offense — strength vs. strength.
New England obviously finished No. 1 overall (275.9 yards per game) and No. 1 in points allowed (14.1). Meanwhile, while Tennessee finished 12th in overall offense (362.8 yards per game) and 10th in points (25.1), it is fourth in points scored since Week 7 — when Ryan Tannehill officially took over as the starting quarterback.
With that being said, both units have had similar paths — their successes have come against bad teams.
In 10 games against non-playoff teams, the Patriots defense allowed an average of 10 points per game, 252.2 yards and forced 27 turnovers. In six games against playoff teams, the Patriots defense allowed an average of 20.8 points per game, 315.3 yards and forced nine turnovers. Clearly, it beat up on bad teams to open the season.
For the Titans, while Tannehill finished the regular season with a 117.5 passer rating, the highest in the entire NFL and third-highest of all time, he too beat up on some bad competition. Of Tannehill’s 10 starts, just three were against playoff teams and one came in the season finale when Houston rested its starters.
It goes beyond just Tannehill, too.
While Derrick Henry finished the season with a league-leading 1,540 yards on the ground, looking at his game-by-game production he too beat up on bad rushing defenses. Here are his highest yard outputs, but also included are the rushing defense rank they came against: 211 vs. Texans (25), 188 vs. Chiefs (26), 159 vs. Jaguars (28) and 149 vs. Colts (7). Henry certainly took advantage of defenses which struggle stopping the run.
“I mean, there’s not a lot of guys like him in the league,” Bill Belichick said earlier this week. “We’ve had some experience against him, and that’s a little helpful, I would say. But in the end, you watch one film and you see the way his running style is and he has good variation of runs. I mean, he can make you miss in space, he can drop his pads and run with power and run over you. He’s a good inside runner, good outside runner, and catches the ball well and he’s got speed to go the distance. He doesn’t get caught much. He gets a step and then he’s able to finish it off. He’s got a good stiff arm. He breaks a lot of tackles in the secondary from guys that just can’t get close enough to wrap him up – he just pushes them away.”
So, how will things play out Saturday night?
Will the Titans offense be able to perform at the same rate as it has most of the year against the No. 1 ranked Patriots defense? Can the Patriots defense break its trend of struggling against playoff teams?
The thing the Patriots have going for them is the experience factor and that the game is at Gillette Stadium.
Belichick is 11-0 in the playoffs when facing a quarterback making his first career playoff start, which Tannehill is set to do. In addition, Belichick is 20-3 at home in the playoffs with New England.
Also, it’s a lot easier to believe in Dont’a Hightower, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty to make plays on the big stage than it is with Tannehill, Henry and rookie receiver A.J. Brown.
While anything can happen come Saturday night, things are pointing towards the Patriots defense, not the Titans offense, being able to break the trends from this year.