Making a Case for a Titans Win Over Patriots
By Adam Kilgore
The Washington Post
The Tennessee Titans scored 22 fewer points than their opponents in the regular season, trailed by 18 points at halftime in the wild-card round and will face the New England Patriots in the divisional round as a 131/2-point underdog. Since the last time the Titans won a playoff game, the Patriots have won four Super Bowls. When New England quarterback Tom Brady won his first Lombardi Trophy, Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota was in elementary school.
The 9-7 Titans do not possess a profile befitting a team among the final eight NFL teams left standing, and they appear especially overmatched when compared to the 13-3 Patriots. It would be easy to add to the above figures and list all the reasons why the Patriots will advance to their seventh consecutive AFC Championship game. But what would be the challenge in that?
The real test would be building the argument for why and how the Titans could swing one of the biggest upsets in recent memory - and do it without relying on Bill Belichick’s comically detailed and wildly effusive appraisal of the Titans. So, sure, why not? For those looking for some drama out of Saturday night, here’s a five-part case for Tennessee.
The Mobile Quarterback: In the defensive performances in which the Patriots allowed the most points this season, they surrendered 42, 33 and 33 points to the Chiefs, Panthers and Texans, three teams who employ running quarterbacks and read-option threats. If Mariota can replicate the success of Alex Smith, Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, the Titans would have a chance.
Granted, those three performances came early in the season, when the Patriots’ defense was in disarray. But Belichick’s defenses have always thrived on discipline and every player fulfilling his responsibility. Nothing can better blow up a carefully orchestrated defensive plan like a quarterback who can buy extra time or dodge a pass-rusher and pick up easy yards.
Mariota, who battled a nagging hamstring injury much of the season, says he is the healthiest he’s been. He proved it in the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs, extending plays and drives with his feet, catching his own deflected pass for a touchdown and even throwing a key block on the game-sealing run.
That’s right: The blocking of Tennessee’s quarterback is part of how the Patriots could be upset Saturday. So . . . yeah.
Red Zone Improvement: The Patriots play, as Titans Coach Mike Mularkey said, a “bend-don’t-break” defense. The Patriots allowed the fifth-fewest points in the NFL but surrendered the fourth-most yards. They yielded touchdowns in the red zone on only 43.8 percent of chances, the fourth-best rate in the NFL.
“Their red-zone defense is probably one of the tops in the NFL,” Mariota said. “They find a way to make you kick field goals. They do a lot of different things, whether it’s their fronts, whether it’s their schemes and their coverages. We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to be good in the red zone.”
So, the Titans should be able to move the ball, but they’ll need Mariota to be great in the red zone. Looking at the big picture, that’s bad news: Mariota did throw seven touchdowns and no interceptions inside the 20 this season, but he also completed fewer than 45 percent of his red zone passes. The Titans scored on 52.5 percent of their red zone trips, 19th in the NFL.
With Mariota healthier, though, Tennessee’s offense becomes much harder to defend in the red zone. In their only trip inside the red zone against the Chiefs, Tennessee scored a touchdown, albeit on the fluke pass Mariota threw to himself. Mariota also threw a touchdown to Eric Decker from the 22.
The Familiarity Edge: Titans General Manager Jon Robinson helped build these Patriots, working as a scout and scouting executive in New England from 2002 through 2013. Offensive lineman Josh Kline spent the 2013 through 2015 seasons with the Patriots. Cornerback Logan Ryan played for Belichick for the past four years before he signed with the Titans as a free agent last offseason. Mularkey didn’t wait to pick Ryan’s brain for Patriots intel.
“Oh, we had a cup of coffee this morning and talked about some things,” Mularkey said Tuesday. “Yeah, we did. Yeah, he’s been very helpful.”
Will any of that actually matter? Eh. But Mularkey does seem oddly, and coyly, confident in Tennessee’s ability to predict how the Patriots will attack.
The Size Factor: For the Titans to win, their best bet is to keep the ball out of Brady’s hands. Derrick Henry, listed at 247 pounds, is one of the biggest backs in the NFL. He weighs more than both the Patriots starting inside linebackers, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, and weighs nearly as much as Eric Lee and Trey Flowers, whom the Patriots list as their starting defensive ends.
Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, broke out last week with DeMarco Murray sidelined, rushing for 156 yards on 23 carries. Mularkey said coaches have emphasized running downhill, through small creases, rather than instinctively bouncing runs outside, and Henry has responded.
The Narratives: The Patriots, as detailed by ESPN’s blockbuster last week, might be coming apart from the inside, torn by tension, ego and Brady’s personal health guru. They’ve had to handle that distraction and might be playing to prove it wrong rather than simply focusing on their task. The Titans are the young up-and-comers, playing without pressure, knowing they had no business making it here in the first place.
“I said to them out there (at practice), ‘Isn’t this cool?’” Mularkey said. “This is what you’ve guys have worked for. There is no reason to get uptight. I want them to enjoy this. This is a great experience.”
It may be a long shot, but the Titans have already overcome worse odds to advance this far, coming back from a 21-3 halftime deficit in Kansas City. The Titans weren’t very good all season, but they have a strong offensive line, a workhorse running back and a young quarterback with all the pedigree and intangibles of a potential star. Maybe they’re coming together at the right time.