Winning against the New England Patriots is not an easy task, particularly this time of year. The last team to defeat them at home in the playoffs was the 2012 Baltimore Ravens. Even though the odds are incredibly long, here is how the Tennessee Titans can pull the upset on Saturday.
How the Tennessee Titans Can Pull Off an Upset in the AFC Divisional Round
Win the Turnover Battle
Against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Titans did not take care of the football. Marcus Mariota threw an interception, lost the ball twice (the infamous forward progress play and the first two point attempt–the latter of which was clearly the correct call while the former will certain cause some discussion in the off-season) and Derrick Henry fumbled once but the ball went out of bounds. Those mistakes cannot happen. The Patriots are masters of making teams pay for errors and if the Titans don’t clean that up, they will most assuredly get beat.
The other part of the turnover battle is forcing the Patriots to make mistakes. That is much easier said than done. Tom Brady is arguably the best quarterback in the league today and perhaps of all time. However, there is a formula to beating him.
First, you need to get pressure on him. He’s a master of timing in this offense and if you can hit him and knock him out of rhythm you can force some mistakes–errant throws or even interceptions. The A-gap is perhaps his Achilles heel, which means that Jurrell Casey has to bring his A-game and constantly get in Brady’s face to disrupt the timing and rhythm he has. Second, you have to match up in man coverage. The Steelers did that in week 15, and despite faring well on the outside they could not match up with Rob Gronkowski which ultimately led to their loss. Both are much harder than they look.
The Titans secondary has been the weak point all year, so there is no question this will be paramount. But if it is interceptions you need, Kevin Byard is your guy. The second year safety from Middle Tennessee led the AFC in interceptions with eight which tied Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions for the NFL lead. Former Patriot Logan Ryan knows Brady well from going against him in practice for years, so he may be able to make a big play as well.
Keep Brady on the Sidelines
Last year in the divisional round against the Houston Texans, the Patriots did not play particularly well. If not for a kickoff return for a touchdown and three Brock Osweiler interceptions, the Texans might have been able to pull off the upset. The Texans held the ball for 32:30 in the game, and the Titans need to meet and likely exceed that number to pull this upset.
However, Bill Belichick has always taken away his opponent’s best option and makes the rest of the team beat him. Therefore, I would expect to see a lot of eight men in the box looks as they seek to take away Henry. Fortunately, this is the type of game that the Titans got their big offensive line for, and they will need to show up in this game. There will be opportunities to run as the Patriots gave up 4.7 yards per carry on the ground, tied for second worst in the league. However, they only allowed six rushing touchdowns all season. The only team to allow fewer was the Titans with five.
In their week 15 game at Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell ran for 117 yards. The previous week Kenyan Drake ran for 114 yards as the Miami Dolphins handed the Patriots their most recent defeat. Henry should be able to find running room. But it’s not enough to run the ball, it’s about limiting Brady’s possessions.
As Bill Parcells said before Super Bowl XXV, “shorten the game”. That’s exactly what the Titans have to do in this one.
In this game, there is no pressure on the Titans. Not many people expected the Titans to be here but they are here and playing with house money. So while the Titans will seek to control the ball and keep the clock moving, they also have to take some chances–on both sides of the ball.
The Titans opened as two touchdown underdogs (+13.5) in this game. So not too many people believe in them. However, we’ve seen some massive upsets in the divisional round before.
In 1996, the Jacksonville Jaguars made the playoffs at 9-7 then defeated the Buffalo Bills and then the top seeded Denver Broncos. In 1987 the 8-7 Minnesota Vikings upset the 13-2 San Francisco 49ers 36-24 with a heroic performance from receiver Anthony Carter. Some more recent examples include the New York Jets shocking the Super Bowl favorite San Diego Chargers in 2009 and the 2012 Ravens shocking the Broncos 38-35 in double overtime as 9.5 point underdogs.
Recent history is not on the side of the Titans, as they have lost six straight to the Patriots, including postseason. Brady lost his first start against the Titans 24-7 in 2002, but since then has gone 6-0. In 2003 the Patriots won the regular season meeting 38-30 and the divisional playoff game 17-14. But in the four meetings since the Patriots have won by multiple scores.
If the Titans want to reverse that trend, they have to play with reckless abandon. Dick LeBeau must be able to get pressure on Brady and the secondary must be able to weather the storm. The front seven has been solid against the run all year, and must keep Dion Lewis and the Patriots stable of running backs form running wild.
The offense must grind it out, and fortunately the offensive line is there for that. Taylor Lewan and company are built for a cold weather game and now is when they need to prove their worth. Mariota must take care of the ball and not be afraid to take a few shots to Delanie Walker and company. He will need to if the Patriots sell out to stop the run. If the Titans are one dimensional in this game, they will lose. The running game must control the game, but they cannot do it alone.