The stability of the New England Patriots’ dynasty feels more precarious entering this postseason than perhaps ever before.
Not only do the higher-seeded Kansas City Chiefs and (likely) Baltimore Ravens stand in the way to the Super Bowl, but the Tennessee Titans present a major challenge Saturday night in Foxborough.
That’s where we begin our wild-card weekend preview, with a deep dive on both sides of the ball.
1. Vrabel, Pees know how to handle Patriots’ offense
In Week 10 last season, Tennessee embarrassed New England 34-10 in Nashville, the Patriots’ most lopsided defeat since the famous “On to Cincinnati” loss to Kansas City in 2014. The Titans allowed 284 total yards and limited Tom Brady to a season-low in completion percentage (51.2) with a game plan — which we dissected in Film Study at the time — that many other teams have since copied.
Rob Gronkowski wasn’t available, so Titans head coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees — both former Patriots — keyed heavily on James White and Julian Edelman. Kevin Byard, the league’s best all-around safety, usually matched White, a rare show of respect toward a running back.
Edelman drew physical slot cornerback Logan Ryan (also a former Patriot) and regular double teams. Tennessee also doubled Josh Gordon at times, but no other receiver demands such attention this time around. Edelman should see plenty of bracket coverage.
The Titans’ other primary tactic was “safe” blitzes and zone exchanges, showing six or seven potential rushers but only bringing four or five. Many came from a dime package featuring only one defensive linemen, four linebackers and six defensive backs, providing extra speed to execute stunts and further complicate the rush.
With fewer weapons, the offensive line regressing and Brady showing his age, the Patriots’ weaknesses have grown more glaring. Brady completed more than 56 percent of his passes just once in the final nine games, with the exception coming in a ball-control, play-action-heavy game plan vs. Buffalo in Week 16.
That approach is New England’s best option Saturday. The Patriots have shown improvement run-blocking in recent weeks, although the Titans’ front is stingy (4.03 yards per carry allowed, seventh in NFL).
2. Patriots’ defense must buckle up
New England’s historically great defense will likely have to carry the day against a surging Tennessee offense. The Patriots’ D is hardly overmatched, but the Titans are suited to attack its few weaknesses.
The Patriots finished 14th in yards per carry allowed (4.19), and they’ll see plenty of runs Saturday. Derrick Henry averaged 23.2 carries, 6.45 yards per tote and 149.3 yards per game over his final six games en route to the rushing title.
New England could employ Bear fronts (covering both guards and the center) to counter Tennessee’s zone run game, but the Titans also have a potent collection of toss plays — Henry is best when given a runway to build up speed — to attack the perimeter. Ryan Tannehill hasn’t been a major part of Tennessee’s run schemes, but his mobility presents opportunities to mix in zone-read designs.
Through the air, the Patriots should be able to handle the Titans’ drop-back passing game, but play-action is the biggest concern. The Bills exploited Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty deep off play-action in Week 16, and the Titans have embarrassed teams with similar schemes of late.
One of the game’s best matchups should be Gilmore vs. big-play rookie wideout A.J. Brown (25 catches, 605 yards, 5 TDs, plus a 49-yard rushing TD in the last six games). Brown is remarkably physical — downright violent at times — but that suits Gilmore’s style.
3. Watson must sharpen up vs. Bills
As great as Deshaun Watson is, his Houston Texans won’t go far if he plays like he did in the final three games.
Watson has always had a tendency for loose and undisciplined plays, but those have become more regular of late. His mechanics have grown wild, and he’s held the ball too long while moving himself into pressure or being unaware that it’s arriving.
That won’t fly against the Buffalo Bills, whose defense is extremely disciplined and rarely allows big plays. The Bills force opponents to put together long drives, hoping to short-circuit them with a negative play or a takeaway. Watson cannot feed into their hands.
It would be a major boost to have wideout Will Fuller (groin, game-time decision) in the lineup. The speedster’s presence would give Buffalo less room to be creative with its safeties and disguises, at risk of being burned deep.
Either way, Bill O’Brien could help Watson by using many empty formations early. These looks not only help define the defense, but also require quick and timely distribution, which would help Watson get into a rhythm. The third-year QB tends to let rocky starts snowball, so it’s important to open strong.
4. Young stars collide in the Big Easy
Perhaps the most important matchup when the Minnesota Vikings visit the New Orleans Saints on Sunday is between a pair of 25-year-old stars: Saints right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and Vikings left defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Both are already top-five players at their positions. Ramczyk has allowed just one sack and committed two holding penalties all season, while Hunter had 14.5 sacks for the second consecutive campaign along with a career-high 22 QB hits.
Ramczyk has gotten the better of three previous meetings, though he didn’t face Hunter much in one (he played left tackle in his first career game in Week 1 of 2017). Hunter has no sacks and only two QB hits in three games vs. the Saints, with neither hit coming against Ramczyk.
That will likely have to change Sunday for the Vikings to win. Minnesota’s secondary has slipped significantly, and Drew Brees & Co. have been surgical through the air in recent weeks. Brees has even shown extra juice with his movement in the pocket, making Hunter’s job that much more difficult.
5. What’s changed since Week 12 for Seahawks, Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles’ offense hit rock bottom in a 17-9 home loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 24. Have things changed enough to produce a different result Sunday?
Right tackle Lane Johnson missed that game but appears set to return from a high-ankle sprain. In his absence in Week 12, the Eagles allowed repeated pressure off the right side, against both rookie Andre Dillard (who was benched) and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Right guard Brandon Brooks (shoulder) is now on IR, so Johnson’s return might be a wash, but the Seahawks’ pass rush has mostly been quiet. They likely won’t hit Wentz nine times again. Either way, Wentz must be more aware with the ball, after fumbling three times (once on a botched handoff).
Another key change from Week 12 will be on Seattle’s defense, which lost linebacker Mychal Kendricks to a torn ACL last week. The Seahawks play more base defense than any other NFL team, and that didn’t change without Kendricks, who was replaced by rookie Cody Barton.
The rookie has been a beat late diagnosing and reacting in limited action on defense (151 snaps) this season, which is to be expected. That presents opportunities for the Eagles, who must exploit any possible weaknesses to overcome their lack of healthy weapons. Expect Doug Pederson to target Barton with play-action, rub routes, screens, high-low concepts and misdirection in the run game.
–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media