Thursday, January 11, 2018

NFL Playoff Preview: Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots

This weekend marks the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs, and as you might expect, there are a couple of compelling matchups on offer.  I think both Jags at Steelers and Saints at Eagles offer the road teams a better than average chance to advance.  But if there’s one matchup that’s mostly flown under the radar, it’s Titans at Patriots.
No one gives Tennessee a chance.
As a long time Titans fan, I’m wondering… is this fair, or should we just go ahead and crown the Patriots right now?

The Tennessee Titans
Coming off the greatest comeback victory in the history of the NFL playoffs, the Titans (10-7) are riding high.  No one gives them a chance this weekend?  They don’t care.  No one gave them a chance against Kansas City, either.  
The Titans won their way into the playoffs by defeating the Jacksonville Jaguars for the second time in 2017, and it must be said, because DeShaun Watson’s knee injury prevented the Houston Texans from developing into a legitimate playoff contender as well.  The Titans own wins over the Seahawks, Ravens, Bengals, and Chiefs, but they didn’t play with enough consistency to beat some of the teams they should have beaten as the season wore on, including the Cardinals, 49ers, and—inexplicably—the Dolphins.  Worse yet, Tennessee got blown out 57-14 on the road at Houston on October 1st and managed to beat lowly Cleveland by just three points (Tennessee 12, Cleveland 9) at the end of October in an unwatchable, touchdown-less scrum that was more escape than victory.  Still, the Titans have proven that they can play with anyone.  At a minimum, this gives them a puncher’s chance in New England.
As has been true since before the Vince Young era, Tennessee’s struggles have mostly been on offense.  They can run the ball, and QB Marcus Mariotta’s 62.0% completion percentage makes him a reasonably accurate passer.  On the year, Mariotta is 281/453 passing for 3,232 yards (203.9 yards/game) and 13 touchdowns.  The problem is that he also has a whopping 15 interceptions!  Anecdotally, it seems like these have invariably come in the red zone, and indeed, Mariotta threw a mind-numbingly brutal pick in the red zone against Kansas City just last Saturday as well.  It’s hard to maintain offense like that, and it’s virtually impossible to finish drives.  Which is how you beat the Seahawks but then lose to the Dolphins.
The Titans offense has been dubbed exotic smashmouth, but as a fan of Army Football, I honestly don’t see it.  Army runs a legitimately exotic smashmouth offense, with a rotating cast of fullbacks and tailbacks, ~25% designed QB Keepers, and receivers dubbed “wide tackles” whose primary job is to either crash the inside to spring runners on the edge or block downfield.  By comparison, Tennessee runs a mostly standard NFL run-first scheme with very occasional zone-read elements.  They are not a bad rushing team by any means, but their running game doesn’t feature enough misdirection to be legitimately exotic, nor are they hammering with enough consistency to wear at pro defenses in truly meaningful ways.  They run hard, but the most “exotic” thing they do is boot Mariotta to the edge off play-action, where he has a run/pass option.  That’s not terrible, but it’s their obvious go-to play, and most of their opponents have been ready for it as the season has progressed.
The stats bear this out.  On the year, the Titans are 15th in rushing with an average 114.6 yards/game and 23rd in passing with 199.4 yards/game.  Inconsistency has put them 19th in points scored, with 20.9 points/game, and—tellingly—their defense hasn’t quite been good enough to make up the difference.  The Titans are 17th in points allowed with 22.3.
But there are some bright spots.  On offense, RB Derrick Henry is averaging 4.2 yards/carry, and Mariotta himself has 5.2 yards/carry when he scrambles.  The Titans also have the League’s 4th ranked rushing defense, having given up just 1,420 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns on 398 carries.  That works out to just 88 yards/game.  This in a conference with RB Leonard Fournette and at-best middling quarterback play.  
Alas, the Titan’s passing defense has been less stout.  Offenses have collectively gone 369/605 passing (61.0%) for 3,828 yards and 27 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions, and that’s against a defense that owns 43 sacks.  Yikes!
The New England Patriots
Someday QB Tom Brady’s brain will melt from all the concussions he’s been ignoring these past 15+ years.  Until then, NFL fans the world over are stuck watching the undisputed greatest quarterback in history play for the NFL’s most despised franchise.  No one outside Boston enjoys this, but Army fans have known for many years that the Football Gods are a terrible and capricious lot.  
This is not news.  We must simply endure until it’s over.
The Pats lost to the Chiefs in Week 1, and for a while it looked like maybe the dynasty had come to an end.  But Brady and company rebounded as always, finishing 13-3 and earning home field advantage.  The Pats already own wins against the Saints, Falcons, and Steelers, which is pretty much everyone who could reasonably be expected to beat them between now and the end of the Super Bowl.  If that’s not enough, they also beat the DeShaun Watson Texans 36-33.  Yes, that is the same Texans squad that destroyed the Titans 57-14 just one week later.
Statistically, the Pats are good in pretty much every category.  They’re 2nd in passing with 276.1 yards/game and 2nd in scoring as well with an amazing 28.6 points/game.  Brady has himself gone 385/581 passing (66.3%) for 4,577 yards (273.5 yards/game) with 32 touchdowns against just 8 interceptions.  All of that is phenomenal.  Meanwhile, RB Dion Lewis hasn’t exactly been a workhorse, but his 180 carries for 896 yards gives him a very respectable 5.0 yards/carry with 6 touchdowns and no fumbles.  Lewis may not be the first option, but it’s wrong to think of Brady as the Pat’s whole offense.
The one place the Patriots struggle is on defense.  Though they are 5th in scoring defense with just 18.5 points/game and have 42 sacks, they still have the 30th ranked pass defense (62.2% completion percentage allowed) and—ominously for this particular matchup—the 20th ranked rushing defense.  Indeed, the Pats have given up 1,836 yards on just 390 carries (4.7 yards/carry; 114.8 yards/game).  They’re better as a scoring defense, having allowed just 6 rushing touchdowns, but it’s still not a surprise that two of the teams that beat them were both excellent rushing teams, the Chiefs and the Panthers.
There’s clearly a template here; it’s just a template that’s not easy to follow.
Critical Match-Ups
This is not complicated.  The Titans need to run the Holy Hell out of the football in order to neutralize the Pats’ pass rush and keep Tom Brady and company off the field.  Their offense purports to be exotic smashmouth, and that’s exactly what they need it to be.  However, they need to commit to it, which probably means using Mariotta’s ability as a rusher much more than they might prefer.  They also need to keep Mariotta from making bone-headed mistakes in the red zone, but that’s a tougher ask.
It’s worth noting that Brady himself struggles when he’s getting hit.  He gets the ball out quick, but even so, the New York Giants proved twice that it’s possible to beat the Pats if you can get to the quarterback.  Meanwhile, the Titans’ pass rush is very good.  
Honestly, Tennessee needs to hit Brady hard enough to make him feel his age.  Dude is 40 years old.  Knocking him out of the game (and perhaps out of the League entirely) should be an achievable goal.

Final Thoughts
The line opened at Patriots (-13.5), and I really can’t argue with it.  Still, that is a massive line in a professional game.  The Titans may have enough talent to compete, but they will have to be much more consistent on offense if they want to win, and Mariotta will have to throw zero picks.  I don’t know how much I believe that’s possible.
The flipside is that football is a violent game, and playoff football tends to be more violent still.  The refs tend to let guys play, especially in Foxborough.  But that actually benefits the Titans.  One of these teams will be starting a 40-year-old man.  Seriously, the Titans’ best chance by far is to knock a piece off the board from New England—just like they did last week in KC with TE Travis Kelce.  
Don’t think that they don’t know it.
The weather might help.  Foxborough is expecting temperatures around 50 with rain.  Both these teams rush pretty well, but in sloppy conditions, the stronger, more committed team has a decided advantage.  I don’t know that this will necessarily aid Tennessee, but clearly a contest that devolves into an ugly, smashmouth mess plays more to their strengths.
Can Tennessee pull off another miracle?  The odds are against it, but it’s far from impossible.

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