New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

L-R: Titans coach Mike Vrabel, Patriots coach Bill Belichick

Going back just a few weeks, it felt like Sunday’s Patriots-Titans matchup had ‘Game of the Year’ potential. Since then, Tennessee has lost star player after star player to injury, and now the Titans limp into Gillette Stadium on Sunday a shell of the roster that earned the best record in the AFC through 11 weeks.

That’s not to say the Titans can be taken lightly – they can’t. With or without key injuries, the Titans’ identity for the last two years has been a scrappy, win-at-all-costs team. As many Patriots players and coaches pointed out this week, that identity mirrors the identity of their coach – former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel – during his playing days with the Patriots.

Where do the Patriots need to play their best football to prevent the Titans from keeping things close and making a run at this game? Let’s take a look in this week’s key matchups…

  • When New England has the ball: David Andrews vs. Jeffery Simmons

    One of the few playmakers who is still healthy for Tennessee is defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Much like Patriots fans have seen Christian Barmore do this season, Simmons combination of size (6-foot-4, 305 pounds) and quickness allow him to disrupt offenses up the middle both in the running and passing game.

    Simmons has been on a tear as of late. Over the last three games he’s totaled 11 tackles with six for a loss, five sacks, and seven QB hits. That includes a three sack performance against the Rams on Sunday Night Football two weeks ago, a game in which he helped create turnovers with his pressure as well.

    Interior pressure can be especially disruptive for pocket passers like Mac Jones, and can ruin a game plan against a power run game like the Patriots have. David Andrews and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive line will be tasked with keeping Simmons out of Jones’ face and minimizing the damage he can do on Sunday.

  • When Tennessee has the ball: J.C. Jackson vs. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine

    Down Julio Jones, A.J. Brown, and Jeremy McNichols, the Titans will have just one active player on Sunday who has recorded more than 20 catches this season. That’s second-year receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who has 23 receptions on the year for 215 yards and a touchdown.

    Westbrook-Ikhine is a big, physical wide receiver at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. He’ll line up both in the slot and outside, although he did more of the latter after Brown left last week’s game with a chest injury.

    Coming off a career day against the Texans to the tune of seven catches for 105 yards, Westbrook-Ikhine may be the Titans best threat to throw the ball against the Patriots – and they may not have a choice if the Pats get up early, similar to the game flow against Cleveland. If J.C. Jackson can take Westbrook-Ikhine out of the game like he’s done to many more decorated receivers this season, a tough day for Ryan Tannehill could get exponentially harder.

  • Bonus: Bill Belichick vs. Mike Vrabel

    If any one individual in that Titans locker room gives them the best chance to win the game, it’s head coach Mike Vrabel. Not only has Vrabel excelled at winning under less-than-ideal conditions before since taking over in Tennessee in 2018, but this time around he has an intimate knowledge of his opponent.

    Vrabel has faced the Patriots twice as a head coach, and is 2-0 in those games. As will be the case on Sunday, he had a less talented roster for the first meeting in 2018. Yet with Marcus Mariota at quarterback he managed to send Bill Belichick home with a 34-10 loss. The following year, the Titans came up to Foxborough for a Wild Card round playoff game. Again shorthanded, Vrabel’s game plan resulted in his team escaping with a 20-13 win.

    Unlike some of the more offensive-minded, mathematically-driven coaches Belichick has put in a pretzel in recent weeks, Vrabel will see the game more similar to the way his former head coach does. That should level the playing field a bit this Sunday, and could result in a chess match if the game stays close. The best thing Belichick and the Patriots can do is score early and force the Titans to play aggressively on both sides of the ball, limited Vrabel’s ability to be creative.

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