You may be wondering how the Titans could beat the Patriots in Sunday's AFC Divisional Playoff. Few are giving Tennessee a real chance. But if a combination of factors can bounce their way, the Titans could be closer to an upset than you may believe.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are 13.5-point favorites for Saturday's game at Gillette Stadium. And in all honesty, that sounds about right. The Titans are arguably the least talented opponent that the Pats have faced under Brady and Bill Belichick in the Divisional round. They might not even be in the playoffs if the Colts or Texans had their quarterbacks.
But there are certain things that, if the Titans achieved them, could give Tennessee a shot to pull the upset. And to call it an "upset" would be the understatement of the millennium in New England. It would probably be the worst loss in the entire Brady/Belichick run.
Still, if these things can happen - all of them - give the Titans a sliver of a smidgen of a chance at shocking the football world on Saturday night.
How The Titans Could Beat The Patriots
Tried to go beyond the obvious for this. Clearly, if the Titans can get consistent pressure on Tom Brady and cover Rob Gronkowski well then they will give themselves a legit shot. If they can score touchdowns instead of field goals and convert third downs, they'll make this game a real fight. However unlikely this is, if Belichick screws up a play call or Brady turns the ball over multiple times then the Titans will at least keep it close.
This is based more on situational, conceptual elements of the game that will have to favor the Titans in order for them to finish the game with more points on the scoreboard. It's not that these things are likely, either. But they have to happen if the Titans want a chance at the massive road upset. So fine, maybe they don't really have a chance.
Anyway, here's how the Titans could beat the Patriots on Saturday...
Take a Lead Into The Fourth Quarter
If the Titans have to come back in the second half, forget about it. They won't be able to keep up with Brady if the Patriots offense fires on all of the proverbial cylinders. Instead, they need a superlative effort on defense and an efficient, mistake-free offensive game to give them a late lead.
Much has been said about the Titans' running game and big back Derrick Henry. The Pats' run defense allowed the second-most yards per carry (4.7) in the league this season, so it could be hard to stop the Titans on the ground. But that won't mean anything if Tennessee can't build themselves a lead.
Where the Titans could really make their presence felt on the ground is if they have a late lead, so they can pound the hell out of Henry, wear the Patriots defense out, and run out the clock. Other than that particular kind of situation, their run game really isn't a factor on Saturday. But the Titans having the lead to start the fourth would be shocking enough. And that's when they could really start to make New England feel uneasy.
Match The Patriots' Situational Awareness
The Steelers showed this in Week 15. Even if the Titans can make it a close game and give themselves a chance to win at the end, that still may not be enough. Mike Tomlin and the Steelers were not prepared for what they needed to do once Jesse James' controversial touchdown catch was overturned. They threw the ball short over the middle and got tackled in bounds, then panicked as Ben Roethlisberger threw the game-losing interception.
Mike Mularkey and the Titans simply need to be better prepared and more composed in those kinds of situations. And QB Marcus Mariota needs to be even more aware. He can't force throws or make plays that will wind the clock down, or get sloppy with the ball in his hands in general.
But you can just picture it now: the Titans have the ball down three, driving, chance to at least tie the game ... and Mariota sails a throw into the hands of Duron Harmon. Or tries to scramble with no timeouts and 20 seconds left. Or forces the Titans into a last-second rushed field goal that Ryan Succop promptly shanks to the right. All while Belichick simply stands there waiting for things to play out. If the Titans can't at least show a competent level of situational awareness in this game, it won't matter how close they keep the score.
Be More Aggressive
The Titans ranked 20th in touchdown-to-field goal ratio in the regular season. Their red zone offense really isn't close to that of the Patriots. So they'll have to significantly improve upon prior performances in order to make this a real game.
But the fact that they need to score touchdowns is, as I said before, obvious. It really comes down to being more aggressive in general. The Titans should kick field goals when it's appropriate or necessary, but they shouldn't settle for kicks too often. They need to go for it on fourth down. To push the ball down the field and avoid running the ball in predictable situations. Because you know that the Patriots are going to do those things.
The Titans certainly have a physical offense, especially on the ground. But if they think they can just run their way to victory for 60 minutes, they'll have a bad time. Winning time of possession and Keeping Brady Off The Field™ has not been a reliable strategy in the past, however logical it may seem. So the hope for Tennessee is that they let Mariota throw more, and throw effectively.
So that shouldn't be much of an issue for the Titans, right? Just be more aggressive. And show more situational awareness in key situations. And build a lead for the fourth quarter. And get pressure on Brady. And shut Gronk down. And score touchdowns instead of field goals. And force turnovers. (Deep breath) And hope that Mularkey out-coaches Belichick.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].