A New England victory on Sunday would move the Patriots one step closer to clinching a bye week. Should the Patriots win against the Tennessee Titans, they would have to lose their final two games against the Jets and Dolphins for even the smallest chance of missing the bye.
In addition to losing out, the Bengals must beat the Broncos and Ravens in the final two weeks, and the Broncos must defeat the Steelers this week and the Chargers in the finale. The only game that doesn't affect the calculus is the Bengals game against the 49ers this week.
This game is important for the Patriots because New England should win this game. They won't have an easier opponent for the rest of the year. Here's why.
When the Titans run the ball
Tennessee has two real running backs, with an array of players that are used to spell the starters, but Antonio Andrews and Dexter McCluster are the only two worth knowing. David Cobb and Bishop Sankey spell Andrews when he needs a break, but they don't offer anything unique for the offense.
Oh, and McCluster was just added to the Injured Reserve with a wrist injury.
Andrews has good balance, but he lacks any really outstanding athletic traits. He's not super fast, he's not super strong, but he's very consistent and he can catch, block, and run. McCluster was the receiving back, but the Titans weren't afraid to hand him the ball. The loss of McCluster makes the Titans run defense even less dynamic than it already was.
The line isn't anything special as they have been playing a bunch of different players. Byron Bell and Taylor Lewan are the only two linemen to start the whole season, while guard Chance Warmack is the only other lineman to suit up for more than 60% of the snaps. Back-up center Andy Gallik is a turnstile.
The Titans have done a really good job of running the ball against bad defenses, and they've really struggled to run the ball against good defenses. The Patriots have a good defense and linebacker Dont'a Hightower should be returning to help bolster the front seven.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a major threat to run the ball so the Patriots will play their standard anti-mobile quarterback defense to try and keep Mariota in the pocket with a mix of mushrush and bull rushes. Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Akiem Hicks, and Sealver Siliga will be great.
When the Titans pass the ball
While Mariota is a rookie, Tennessee doesn't shy away from throwing the ball. The issue is that the Titans are pretty weak at receiver.
Tight end Delanie Walker is the top threat on offense with twice as many targets and yards than the second ranked receivers on the Titans. Walker is quick and strong and should be treated like a slightly better version of Washington TE Jordan Reed and Buffalo TE Charles Clay. The Patriots have deployed safety Patrick Chung in defense of tight ends all season and this game should be no different.
The Titans average 1.8 tight ends on the field at any given time, and former Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano has seen 51% of the snaps, while Craig Stevens has played 42%. There's definitely overlap with multiple tight end (and fullback) sets, but Fasano and Stevens combine to average 30 receiving yards per game. They can be covered by a linebacker.
The Titans use a fair share of two and three receiver sets, and no player has played more that Harry Douglas with 66% of the snaps. That's oddly low for a team's leading receiver, and Douglas' invisibility on the field is even more glaring. Douglas has 298 receiving yards on the season. That's not good, and he's not good.
Dorial Green-Beckham is second in snaps, with just 50%, and is big and can outbody defenders. He doesn't run very many routes, but he's extremely dangerous using his tight end-like frame, but wide receiver ability, out of the slot and up the seam. He has a good ability to undercut the deep safety across the middle of the field and can use his body to box out and make the catch.
Kendall Wright is fantastic, but underutilized at just 48% of the snaps, but he's battling rib injuries and hasn't practiced this week. He's not expected to play. Wright ranks second on the Titans in receptions and his loss is a big loss because he and Dexter McCluster were the two shifty players in the offense that can typically fare well against the Patriots. The Titans other receiver, Justin Hunter, is on the Injured Reserve.
It should be noted that the Titans line is in shambles, they're missing their top receiving back, their most dynamic receiver, and they're operating with a rookie quarterback. Against Bill Belichick.
Pro Football Focus notes that Marcus Mariota has the worst accuracy of any quarterback in the league on passes 20+ yards down the field. The Patriots really should dedicate the defensive resources to stopping the run and covering Walker at tight end, eliminating the quick throws, and challenging Mariota to win down the field.
Logan Ryan is likely to draw the match-up with Green-Beckham, while Malcolm Butler should be able to erase Douglas without much trouble. Neither will really need safety help, which is a positive with Patriots safety Devin McCourty sidelined, but the New England secondary will be more-than-capable of stopping the Titans passing attack.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Titans defense has been pretty good this season operating out of the base 3-4 with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Patriots are familiar with LeBeau after his many years in Pittsburgh, as well as for his time with the Bills in 2003.
The Titans have two blue chip players in their defensive front in Brian Orakpo and Jurrell Casey. Derrick Morgan, another quality edge defender that aligns opposite of Orakpo, has been placed on the Injured Reserve and David Bass has taken his place. DaQuan Jones, Sammie Lee Hill, and Karl Klug will see some time at the defensive tackle position. Klug can be disruptive, but ideally these other players would not see heavy snaps.
Avery Williamson is the team's only every-down middle linebacker, as Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown are busy
with an incredible country band rotating in and out of the line-up.
The defensive line is quality as Orakpo, Casey, and, okay, Jones can make plays. If the ballcarrier can get into the second level, the Titans are week, especially with starting strong safety Da'Norris Searcy not expected to play. Teams have had success bouncing runs to the outside away from Casey and opposite of Orakpo with fairly consistent success.
For whatever reason, the linebackers sit in the lane instead of attacking the runner, which lets the ballcarrier dictate where the play will head. Brandon Bolden will likely be used in this role as he seems to excel bouncing outside for reasonable gains.
The Patriots rushing attack will be successful if they can reduce the impact of Casey and Orakpo, plain and simple.
When the Patriots pass the ball
The Titans secondary will have to find a replacement for the injured Searcy, but cornerbacks Coty Sensabaugh and Perrish Cox, and free safety Michael Griffin, are the three other starting defensive backs. Daimion Stafford stepped in for Searcy last week. B.W. Webb is the Titans third cornerback on the field.
There's a lot wrong with this pass defense, and a fair amount can be blamed on injuries. The pass rush is fairly weak, especially with Morgan out, and relies on linebacker blitzes to get after the quarterback. Tom Brady will have a field day up the seams if the Titans try him. If the Patriots interior can stave off Casey, which is no easy task (he's as disruptive as the Eagles' Fletcher Cox), then Brady will have plenty of time to dissect the Tennessee secondary since he will only have to look out for Orakpo.
The Titans play a soft man coverage scheme on the outside, with some pretty soft zone coverages in the middle. The Patriots can dink and dunk their way down the field in this game, taking advantage of the weak coverage by the linebackers in the middle, or by attacking the sidelines with comeback routes that take advantage of the off coverage.
New England simply has too many options on offense for the Titans to handle on a consistent basis. It's not like any particular type of player or play gives the Titans defense trouble. Everything gives them trouble. Wide receivers give them trouble. Slot receivers give them trouble. Tight ends give them trouble. Running backs give them trouble. At a point it becomes less about the scheme and more about a need for more talent.
Just like how the Patriots were able to remove Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt from the equation, if the Patriots can limit Casey's impact, the New England passing game will be fine.