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Commentary: Titans don't pose a threat for Patriots

Boston Herald

January 07. 2018 9:58PM

Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota celebrates with center Ben Jones after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter of Saturday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via USA TODAY Sports)

The expectation was for a rematch with Kansas City and a chance for the Patriots to atone for the beating they took from the Chiefs on Opening Night.

Of the three teams the Patriots could have played, that would have been the toughest division round opponent out there.

Tennessee? Obviously, a much better option.

The fifth-seeded Titans, who overcame an 18-point deficit to topple the Chiefs, 22-21, at Arrowhead Saturday, come to Foxborough, Mass., as a relatively unfamiliar foe. They haven’t played the Patriots since the 2015 season and the two have squared off just seven times in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. (The Patriots are 6-1, including a playoff win in January 2004.)

While Marcus Mariota and the Titans were impressive during their second-half comeback over the Chiefs, they don’t pose the same kind of threat as Kansas City. They haven’t scared anyone all year. Still, the Patriots would be wise not to take them lightly.

Here are five observations about this game in advance of Saturday night’s divisional playoff matchup:

1. Beware the mobile quarterback

Marcus Mariota had his struggles during the season, throwing 15 interceptions and just 13 touchdowns. He didn’t progress the way people had hoped, but he certainly showed why he was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft in that second half. The Patriots have always had issues with mobile quarterbacks who can pass efficiently, and Mariota took over the second half by running well and creating plays. The Titans went up-tempo during the comeback, and his ability to make things happen when plays broke down was the difference. The numbers aren’t off the charts — he finished 19-of-31 for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an interception while running for 46 yards — but he was good when he needed to be, putting together three scoring drives in the second half including one in which he threw a touchdown pass to himself, catching a batted pass and running it in. While the Pats have done well defending Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor, they weren’t as successful containing Cam Newton, Alex Smith and Deshaun Watson. Mariota has played once against the Patriots, but left that 2015 game early with a knee injury.

2. Oh, Henry!

If the Pats thought dodging Kareem Hunt was a bonus, well, Derrick Henry isn’t going to be a picnic. He dominated the Chiefs’ front seven and by the second half, they wanted no part of tackling the 6-foot-3, 238-pound back. Just ask Darrelle Revis. The former University of Alabama stud had a career high 23 rushes for 156 yards and a touchdown, and became the second running back in Titans history (Eddie George) to rush for at least 150 yards in a playoff game. The Titans’ strength is one of the Patriots’ weaknesses as New England’s defense was the second worst in the league this season, allowing 4.7 yards per carry. They might be getting Kyle Van Noy and Alan Branch back and have James Harrison on board, but stopping the Titans’ running game will be a big challenge.

3. Remember these Titans

The Titans own the fourth-best run defense in the league. Derrick Morgan, Jurrell Casey, Wesley Woodyard, Sylvester Williams and Brian Orakpo have been tough to move up front. Yes, maybe it was poor playing calling on Andy Reid’s part, but Hunt completely disappeared in the second half and was barely a factor all game. When the Chiefs did give him the ball, he found few holes, running for just 42 yards and a score on 11 carries. With the game in the balance, the NFL’s leading regular-season rusher earned just five carries for 17 yards, three of which went for a yard or less. The Patriots, of course, have been relying heavily on their run game with Dion Lewis. If he’s neutralized, that would be significant.

4. The Dick LeBeau Factor

The legendary defensive coordinator, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, is 80 years old and still on the sideline calling plays. He’s most known around New England for when he was in Pittsburgh from 2004-14. Back then, Tom Brady was a thorn in his side. Brady and his mates have owned LeBeau and his zone-blitz scheme. On Saturday, LeBeau went after Alex Smith, blitzing heavily with linebackers Woodyard and Orakpo and leaving Smith with little time to throw. However, Brady’s quick reads and quick delivery have usually been a recipe for success against that approach. In fact, he typically picks apart any zone. The one time LeBeau switched up and went with more man-coverage was one of the few times the Steelers had success.

5. Run, Gronk, run

The Titans got a break when Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce left the game with a concussion. When he was in the game, they could not stop him, allowing four catches for 66 yards and a 13-yard touchdown reception. The second-half Chiefs offense was lost without him. If the Titans had no answer for Kelce, they won’t have a clue with Rob Gronkowski, the best tight end in the game. Disregarding the season finale against the Jets — in which he wasn’t even targeted — Gronk has 28 catches on 39 targets for 464 yards and three touchdowns in his previous four games. That’s an average of 16.6 yards per catch. After missing last season’s Super Bowl run, a healthy Gronk is primed for a big postseason.

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