AFC Wild Card Matchup:
Tennessee Titans (9-7) at New England Patriots (12-4)
Saturday, January 4, 5:15 PM PST (CBS)
Is this the end for Tom Brady? Can Ryan Tannehill exact revenge on his old AFC East foes? Will the Patriots be the ones exacting revenge for having to play on AFC Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade? There’s only one way to find out! Here are the key players, position groups, and statistics that will bring either team to victory. If you want to know how I think this will play out, check out our Wild Card Round predictions article.
How the Tennessee Titans Win
Important Player: A.J. Brown
No player on either side of the ball for either squad can blow up the game like A.J. Brown. Brown has a league-leading eight catches of 40+ yards this season, which is three more than the Patriots allowed all year. The rookie wide receiver turned on the afterburners with Ryan Tannehill, posting 78 yards per game on 20.5 yards per catch with Ryan Tannehill. He was up-and-down for a while but ended with 110+ yards in three of his last four games. If the Titans take down the Patriots on Sunday, they need A.J. Brown’s game-breaking skills to tilt the table.
Important Position Group: Defensive Backs
The Patriots and Tom Brady, despite his decline, know exactly how to attack you. They then focus in on that weakness and go to town. You’d think that most teams would do this, but you would be wrong. In this case, it’s the Tennessee defensive backfield. The Titans defense allowed the ninth-most passing yards in the league this season and did it through allowing dinks and dunks. Tennessee was middle of the pack against 20+ and 40+ yard pass plays. This means lots of short passes, which plays into New England’s game plan. Adoree’ Jackson (#6 PFF CB) missed the last four games. He’s set to return this weekend against the Patriots.
Important Statistic: Derrick Henry 20+ yard plays
Derrick Henry’s a foreboding sight for an opposing defensive player to try to bring down. The 2019 rushing leader stands at 6’3” and 247 pounds and has a knack for running for a long, long time. His nine 20+ yard rushes tie him with Marlon Mack for the second-most among running backs this season. Conversely, the Patriots allowed just six 20+ yard rushing plays (and four of these went over 40 yards). The Patriots stopped the long run at the sixth-best rate in the league, but if someone broke one, it went a long, long way. While the Patriots allowed one of the lowest 20+ yard rush plays in the league, they also allowed the fourth-highest rate of 40+ yard rushing plays. Like A.J. Brown, Derrick Henry has game-tilting talent. He will need to display that on Saturday to carry (pun intended) the Titans to victory.
How the New England Patriots Win
Important Player: Tom Brady
Tom Brady, on a particular play, is still a threat. Tom Brady, play to play, however, is not. That era left us. After the Dolphins gave up nearly 400 passing yards and four TDs to Andy Dalton, they stifled Brady to the tune of just 221 and two (with a pick). Brady was a mess in that one, and it makes him an iffy weekly proposition. He has his lowest completion percentage since 2013, and the fewest touchdowns in a sixteen-game season in his career. Brady has his lowest yards per attempt since 2002. It’s all-around bad for him, but you can Never Count Out Touchdown Tom. There’s likely something left in his tank, and the Patriots need all of it to pass the Titans this weekend. He’s the key to their success. If he fails, the Patriots fail with him.
Important Position Group: Offensive Line
The offensive line is a key component to Tom Brady taking the Patriots to the second round this season. The Patriots squeezed what’s left of Tom Brady by keeping him protected and upright (just 27 sacks on the season, which was twenty-third). Since the Patriots only go as far as Tom Brady, keeping Tom Brady clean is of the utmost importance. More than any other position group, the Patriots offensive line will be key to their success.
Important Statistic: Stephon Gilmore interceptions
Gilmore led the league this season with six interceptions and twenty passes defended. That is, to say, that Stephen Gilmore is extremely good, and can lock up any opponent (except DeVante Parker, and Corey Davis in the playoffs two years ago?). He’ll likely draw A.J. Brown in this contest, meaning that the Tannehill2Brown connection goes through Gilmore. If he can neutralize that threat, the Titans are already dead in the water.