FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Most of the attention for Saturday night’s AFC divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Titans at Gillette Stadium has focused on the defending Super Bowl champions and whether their pursuit of a sixth title might be derailed by reported turmoil within their ranks.
Much less attention has been paid to the Titans, who scrapped their way into the playoffs with a 9-7 record after a shaky finish to the regular season and advanced to this game with a comeback 22-21 wild-card win over the Chiefs last week in Kansas City.
If the Titans are to advance to the AFC Championship game, they will need virtuoso performances from two key offensive players — quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry.
The 13-3 Patriots averaged 28.6 points per game on offense, second in the NFL. So the Titans, who averaged 20.9 points, know they’re going to have to keep up with New England on the scoreboard.
That means they will need Mariota to be better than he was in the regular season, when he threw only 13 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions.
“This is what I’ve worked hard for, it’s to get into these situations, to get in these kinds of games,” Mariota said.
The Titans believe, based on his performance in Kansas City, that Mariota has put his sub-par regular season behind him.
“He’s a man on a mission,” receiver Corey Davis told reporters during the week.
“The guy is a magician out there; he does everything we can ever ask him,” left tackle Taylor Lewan told reporters. “Some things haven’t gone his way here and there. The guy just plays hard consistently. He just gets it done.’’
With the Patriots defense having had issues against mobile quarterbacks, Mariota’s running ability will be something to watch. He has 106 rushing yards in the past two games.
Henry rushed for 156 yards last week in Kansas City, 85 yards of which came in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots are vulnerable to the run, having allowed 4.7 yards per carry.
Since Henry entered the NFL in 2016, the Titans are 12-0 when he has at least 11 carries, but 7-13 when he has 10 or fewer carries. So Henry running consistently against the Patriots and keeping Tom Brady and the New England offense off the field will be the key to the game.
Titans CB Kevin Byard vs. Patriots QB Tom Brady
Byard leads the NFL in takeaways with 10 — eight interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Brady was intercepted five times in the Patriots’ past five games. Byard is licking his chops and not afraid to call out Brady despite his lofty G.O.A.T. status and the fact the Patriots quarterback had only eight INTs all season.
“It’s a playoff game, so it’s not like it’s the preseason where I can go out there, ‘Oh, it’s Brady,’ and I’m chillin’,” Byard told the Tennessean this week. “I don’t really care if it was Joe Montana. I want to make [Brady] look like Blake Bortles if I can to catch a couple picks.’’
Byard picked off Bortles, Jacksonville’s maligned quarterback, twice in Week 17. Brady had one multi-interception game this season, when he was picked off twice against the Dolphins, and has nine multi-interception games during his 34-game playoff career.
Familiar face: Logan Ryan, now the top cornerback on the Titans, spent his first four NFL seasons in New England and will reunite with his former teammates Saturday. His closest friends on the Patriots are fellow Rutgers alums Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon.
Ryan, who signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Titans last offseason, didn’t have an interception this season.
“They went their way, I went mine, and there is no bad blood there,” he said. “You win two Super Bowls, play with Hall of Fame players, play for Hall of Fame coaches, and then going to a place like Tennessee, which wanted me. I wanted to help change something in the [defensive backs] room, change the culture. We believe in each other and I’m enjoying the ride.”
Spy vs. spy: This is an intriguing matchup of minds, Brady against Dick LeBeau, the Titans’ venerable 80-year-old defensive coordinator.
“He still loves to blitz,’’ Brady said of LeBeau. “You’ve got to expect pressure, and it could be safeties, corners, linebackers. They have a lot of movement. He is just a great coach. He knows how to attack offenses and attack protections, and everyone has got to be alert.”
Brady has fared well against LeBeau with a 6-2 record in his career, including seven matchups against the Steelers and a win over the Titans in 2015. Brady has completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,496 yards (312 per game), 19 TDs, three INTs and a 110.9 passer rating. The Patriots have averaged 32.8 points per game with Brady playing against a LeBeau-coached defense.
The Titans, under LeBeau this season, tied for fifth with 43 sacks. They ranked 13th in overall defense and fourth against the run, but were 25th against the pass.
To the rescue: As if they need the help, the Patriots get receiver Chris Hogan back after he missed seven of the final eight games of the regular season with a shoulder injury. Before he was hurt, Hogan caught 33 passes for 438 yards and five TDs in the first eight games.
Hogan became a Patriots postseason hero last year when he had a 180-yard receiving performance against the Steelers in the AFC Championship game. He has been a critical part to the passing attack, with the Patriots losing Julian Edelman to injury earlier this season, and immediately adds depth to an already potent receiving corps, which includes Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski, just in time for the playoffs.
Harrison factor: Can’t you just sense a big contribution coming from James Harrison, the former Steelers defensive end who was signed by the Patriots just a few weeks ago after he was released by Pittsburgh?
Harrison, 39, will be playing in his third game with New England and he looked pretty productive in the first two games, finishing with two sacks against the Jets in the season finale.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey is very familiar with Harrison, having coached on the Steelers when Harrison was on the team.
“[He’s] still good,” Mularkey said. “He just won’t go away. I know him. I was there at Pittsburgh with him. He’s a guy that’s just passionate about it. He doesn’t look much different. I can say that. He still can play.”
Harrison may be a big factor in not only helping the Patriots’ run defense against Derrick Henry, but with containing Titans elusive QB Marcus Mariota. Mobile quarterbacks have given the Patriots problems this season.
Three weeks into his time with New England, Harrison called himself “a little more comfortable’’ with the defense. That might not be good news for Tennessee.
The Patriots are simply more experienced and deeper in talent than the Titans and it’ll show on the scoreboard at the end of the day. Look for Belichick to bottle up Mariota’s scrambling with some schemes and Brady to make just enough plays to keep the Titans from an upset.
Patriots 31, Titans 14