TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7)
at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (13-3)
Gillette Stadium – Foxborough, MA
Kickoff: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Line: New England -13.5, Total: 47
Mariota magic? Tennessee will need a lot more where that came from when it takes on New England on Saturday.
Few people expect the Titans to win on Saturday night in Foxborough, when they'll take on the New England Patriots in the first of two AFC Divisional Round matchups this weekend with a trip to the conference championship game on the line. Then again, very few people expected Tennessee to win straight-up as nine-point underdogs in Kansas City last weekend—hell, few people probably expected head coach Mike Mularkey to even still have a job this week. But the Titans pulled off the upset, thanks to some timely playmaking and injuries on the other side of the ball. Of course, the Patriots are another animal entirely. If you're inclined to believe the reporting of ESPN's Seth Wickersham, there could be discord on the sideline, but even that failed to stop New England from amassing a 13-3 regular season record this season. Put succinctly, the Titans will need a God-like performance from QB Marcus Mariota to upset the Pats. Unfortunately, Mularkey's coaching has consistently limited him from getting anywhere near that level. Since 1983, road teams with winning records coming off of a road win as an underdog (TEN) are 70-122 ATS against teams with winning records in the second half of the season. Over the last five seasons, games involving two teams forcing no more than 1.25 turnovers per game eight-plus games into the year are 52-20 Under against totals between 42.5 and 49.
In the last two weeks, Mariota has made two iconic plays that will live forever in Titans lore: a devastating late-game stiff arm in the regular season finale against Jacksonville, and a deflected touchdown pass to himself in last weekend's Wild Card game. He finished 19-of-31 for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against the Chiefs, adding 46 crucial yards on the ground with his legs. He played significantly better in the second half than in the first, but he'll need to be on his best game for 60 full minutes against the Pats. Some people thought Tennessee was in trouble without veteran RB DeMarco Murray on the field against Kansas City, but in retrospect it seems that his absence may have actually helped. That's because it allowed second-year RB Derrick Henry to step into a feature role, and he sure did answer the call with 156 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries, plus 35 yards on a couple of catches. Henry will get the start again in New England, while Murray is day-to-day in the week leading up to the game. Aside from Henry, Mariota has an unfortunate lack of exciting weapons. TE Delanie Walker has been his primary target all year, and he more than doubled the output of any other Tennessee receiver against the Chiefs with 74 yards on six catches. WRs Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis and Eric Decker are all decent, but none are close to being a legitimate No. 1. But New England has struggled at times against mediocre passing offenses—Tyrod Taylor killed them in the first half a few weeks ago—and some creative game planning could help Mariota find some gaps in this secondary.
With a week of rest, Patriots QB Tom Brady ought to be in top shape for the 34th playoff game of his career. A deep dive into the statistics shows that he hasn't had a particularly outstanding season by his own lofty standards, and yet he'll likely win the NFL MVP award anyway. Historically, the key to stopping Brady in the postseason has been a relentless pass rush, so expect the Patriots to counter anticipated Tennessee blitzes with plenty of quick routes. Easily the next most important man to the New England offense is TE Rob Gronkowski, who is still an obvious mismatch against any defender in the league. Tennessee was able to engineer its comeback against Kansas City after knocking out All-Pro Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, so the injury-prone Gronk might want to keep an eye out for defenders flying into his lower legs. The receiving corps in Foxborough looked much stronger in the preseason than it does today, thanks primarily to Julian Edelman's ACL tear. In recent weeks, WR Chris Hogan has missed a ton of time with a shoulder injury, and it will be a surprise if he's at full strength on Saturday. But WR Brandin Cooks has generally been a reliable No. 1 this year, with WR Danny Amendola having had arguably his best season in a Patriots uniform. The backfield plays a large role in the Patriots' passing game, and RB Dion Lewis has emerged as nothing short of a star this season. He's far more of a threat in the run game than ever before, and remains a threat through the air on third down. Of the injured trio of RBs Rex Burkhead, James White and Mike Gillislee, none is certain to play.