In the final week before training camp, I've elected to list a rundown of teams in the AFC that could give the Patriots the most trouble. The Patriots are still heavy favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and defend their Super Bowl LI title. The first team on the list will be a team that turned a lot of heads in the 2016 season and a team that is easily on the rise in the Tennessee Titans.
Offensively, the Titans are a formidable group. After finishing with the 2nd worst record in the 2014 season, the Titans drafted Oregon QB Marcus Mariota 2nd overall in the 2015 Draft. Early returns on Mariota suggest that he has the potential to be that franchise QB and could be taking that next step coming into his 3rd year in the league. He had a really bad injury in the tail-end of the 2016 season, suffering a broken leg when a defensive lineman fell on it on a sack. However, I do think he'll be fine long term.
Not only do the Titans possess a potential franchise QB, they also have a decent surrounding cast, built over the last 3 years. 2016 first round pick Jack Conklin was a huge success after leveraging the 1st pick of the draft in a trade that would make Bill Belichick proud. The Titans have two quality bookends on their offensive line with Taylor Lewan and Conklin. Their interior OL isn't special, but they hold their own there. The Titans' offensive identity is running the football, playing smashmouth football with the big guys paving the way and two talented RBs in Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry applying the hammer behind them.
Their one weakness in 2016 was a lack of explosive plays in the passing game, with their top WR was Rishard Matthews, who's more of a possession/slot receiver and very few outside weapons. In the offseason, they drafted Corey Davis 5th overall and added Eric Decker to be their outside receivers. In the middle of the field, they have Delanie Walker, whose been one of the game's most underrated players the last 5 years and their backs can catch the football pretty well. Their passing game could become more formidable as Mariota gains experience and the Titans develop outside targets.
Defensively, the Titans are an average group that don't have any players that jump off the page. Their top two edge rushers, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for 19.5 sacks in 2016, although the former will be 31 in 2017. The only Pro Bowl caliber player is DL Jurrell Casey, whose been one of the game's best interior pass rushers the last 5 seasons. They added Adoree Jackson with their other first round pick, added speed to the Titans secondary.
The Patriots typically don't have many issues with teams that are unbalanced towards the offensive end of the roster. In the 2017 AFCCG, the Patriots easily dispatched of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's always been the teams that have strong defenses to keep the Patriots offense from scoring points, and an offense good enough to march down the field and take what the Patriots defense gives them. Given the proclivity for teams wanting to get in big plays, it's been a great strategy for the Patriots over the years.
The Titans are a team that’s trending up, winning 9 games in 2016 including a couple solid wins against the Packers, Broncos, and Chiefs. It’s possible the team takes the next step, but with a head to head match-up I don’t think the Titans will match up very well. The one element they would have is the element of surprise, but at the same time in a playoff matchup, the Titans would have to travel to Foxborough in January.