Patriots Vs. Titans Preview: What To Watch For In Divisional-Round Playoff Clash

It’s playoff time in Foxboro, Mass.

The New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans will square off Saturday night at Gillette Stadium in the divisional round of the NFL postseason. Kickoff is set for 8:15 p.m. ET.

The Patriots are 13.5-point favorites over the Titans, who upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round to earn a spot in this game. Since 2000, New England is 32-1 when favored by 13 1/2 or more points, including 4-0 in the playoffs.

The Titans also have not beaten the Patriots since 2002 — losing each of the teams’ last six meetings — and haven’t won in Foxboro since 1993, before the franchise moved from Houston.

The Patriots are the healthiest they’ve been in months.

They had perfect attendance at practice Thursday for the first time since Sept. 29, and no players have been ruled out for Saturday’s game. Six are listed as questionable: running backs Rex Burkhead, James White and Mike Gillislee, defensive end Eric Lee, defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebacker Marquis Flowers.

Burkhead, White and Branch all are expected to play. (UPDATE: Scratch that. Burkhead now is not expected to play, according to multiple reports.) Wide receiver Chris Hogan and linebacker Kyle Van Noy were removed from the injury report Thursday. They’re good to go.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was not activated off injured reserve Friday, making him ineligible to play Saturday.

Tennessee will be without running back DeMarco Murray for the third consecutive game as he recovers from a knee injury. That means the Patriots will see a whole lot of Derrick Henry, who rushed 23 times for a career-high 156 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City.

Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is an NFL legend, but his defenses historically have struggled against Tom Brady.

The Patriots quarterback is 6-2 in his career against LeBeau (one game with the Titans, seven with the Pittsburgh Steelers), completing 68.0 percent of his passes for an average of 312.0 yards per game. Brady threw 19 touchdown passes with just three interceptions in those contests, and the Patriots averaged 32.8 points per game.

In this game, expect New England to exploit some glaring flaws in Tennessee’s pass defense. The Titans are one of the league’s worst teams at defending tight ends (24th in DVOA) and running backs (32nd) in the passing game, and the Patriots just so happen to employ an All-Pro tight end in Rob Gronkowski and three dangerous pass-catching backs in Burkhead, White and Dion Lewis.

Tennessee’s defense is stout against the run, ranking fourth in both rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry during the regular season, so it’s unlikely we’ll see another 25-carry game for Lewis, who racked up 222 yards on the ground over the New England’s last two games.

For the Titans to have any chance of pulling off what would be a monumental upset, Henry and quarterback Marcus Mariota need to play the way they did in the second half of the Chiefs game, during which Tennessee erased an 18-point deficit.

Mariota has moxie to spare and plenty of running/scrambling ability (see: his touchdown pass to himself and his game-sealing block last week) but he was dreadful as a passer during the regular season, posting career lows in nearly every category and throwing more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13).

Keys this week for the Titans include converting on third down (they were 5-for-5 in the second half against Kansas City) and capitalizing on red-zone opportunities. Mariota has 40 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the red zone during his NFL career, but the Patriots have excelled at holding teams to field goals this season, allowing touchdowns on just 43.8 percent of opponents’ trips inside the 20 (fourth-best in the NFL). They’ve also forced six red-zone turnovers.

Henry is a big, powerful back who also has the speed to bounce outside, meaning relative newcomer James Harrison could play an important role for the Patriots. Setting the edge has been an issue for New England this season, and the 275-pound Harrison, who made his Patriots debut in Week 17, should provide a sizeable boost in that regard while also possessing the versatility to rush the passer and even — as we saw a few weeks ago against the New York Jets — drop back into coverage.

New England also will benefit from having a healthy Van Noy at its disposal. A calf injury limited the linebacker to just 29 total snaps over the final five weeks of the regular season, yet he still ranked second on the team in both sacks (5 1/2) and tackles for loss (four) and third in tackles (73).

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

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