It's not just the running game, Patriots have to stop Ryan Tannehill while he's playing the best football of his career

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By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Titans have a dangerous rushing attack with bruiser Derrick Henry and former Patriot Dion Lewis, two key weapons for the Patriots to limit in Saturday's Wild Card matchup. But Tennessee likely isn't going to roll into Foxboro and upend the Patriots just by handing it off 40 times. They'll also need what they've gotten for the past nine games, which is starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill making plays all over the field through the air.

For the Patriots defense, the true key to victory will be to slow down Tannehill while he's in the middle of putting up career-best numbers.

This will be Tannehill's 12th career game against New England, his first in the playoffs and first with Tennessee. His results were up-and-down while a member of the Miami Dolphins - he posted a 4-7 record with an 84.7 passer rating. But buoyed by a deep stable of weapons with a new lease on his career, Tannehill has taken his game up multiple levels in 2019.

Since Tannehill took over as the starter in Week 7, the Titans are 7-3 and Tannehill posted the second-best passer rating in the league (minimum nine starts) at 119.6. Only Lamar Jackson was better in that department. Tannehill ranked first in yards per attempt (9.6), second in completion percentage (69.6), and third in touchdowns (22). He never had a passer rating higher than 93.5 before this season.

He's also taken better care of the football as the season has gone along. Though Tannehill has turned the ball over eight times in his 10 starts (five interceptions, three lost fumbles), he's thrown just two picks in his last four games. He's thrown 10 touchdowns with a 123.3 passer rating in that span.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 01: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans leaves the field following a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 01, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 01: Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans leaves the field following a game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 01, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick has been curiously mum when asked about Tannehill's performance. He doesn't seem the least bit surprised at how he's played as a Titan.

"I thought he played well in Miami," said Belichick on Tuesday. "But, he's played very well."

Titans head coach Mike Vrabel wasn't exactly going to lay rose petals at Tannehill's feet, either. Especially at this point in the season when one dud is all it takes to get sent packing for the season.

"The leadership and his willingness to learn a new offense as he did was impressive," said Vrabel in a conference call on Tuesday. "He's played well, he's played well enough for us to win some games. Like to have some plays back, but it's all about going forward and continuing to to help us and get better."

Gillette Stadium has been a house of horrors for Tannehill in his career. In six games in Foxboro, he's gone 142-for-233 (60.9 percent) for 1,560 yards, five touchdowns, and 10 interceptions - a 70.0 passer rating. So that good stuff Belichick has seen from Tannehill hasn't really come in his own stadium.

All this being said, it's fair to wonder which Tannehill is going to show up for the Titans on Saturday. If it's the same one we've seen in recent weeks, it's going to be a stiff challenge for the Patriots defense to contain Tennessee and all their weapons. If the Pats can bring back the old Tannehill and force him into taking sacks, making bad decisions or turning the ball over, the weapons won't matter.

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].