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2020 NFL playoffs: Previewing the Patriots’ wild card game against the Titans

Related: Patriots’ run defense prepares for its toughest test yet

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the playoffs! The NFL’s 2019 regular season is in the books, and its last week saw the New England Patriots fall to the Miami Dolphins and lose a first-round bye. As a result, the team will have to play on wild card weekend and meet its first postseason opponent on Saturday: the Tennessee Titans will come to town and try what they could not do during the 2017 and 2003 seasons, advance to the next round.

Let’s take a closer look at the club:

Record: 9-7 (2nd place AFC South)

Points scored: 10th (25.1 points/game)

Points against: 12th (20.7 points/game)

Head coach: Mike Vrabel

Coordinators: Arthur Smith (OC), Dean Pees (DC)

Games so far

Week 1 at Cleveland Browns: W 43-13

Week 2 vs Indianapolis Colts: L 19-17

Week 3 at Jacksonville Jaguars: L 20-7

Week 4 at Atlanta Falcons: W 24-10

Week 5 vs Buffalo Bills: L 14-7

Week 6 at Denver Broncos: L 16-0

Week 7 vs Los Angeles Chargers: W 23-20

Week 8 vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers: W 27-23

Week 9 at Carolina Panthers: L 30-20

Week 10 vs Kansas City Chiefs: W 35-32

Week 11: Bye

Week 12 vs Jacksonville Jaguars: W 42-20

Week 13 at Indianapolis Colts: W 31-17

Week 14 at Oakland Raiders: W 42-21

Week 15 vs Houston Texans: L 24-21

Week 16 vs New Orleans Saints: L 38-28

Week 17 at Houston Texans: W 35-14

Tennessee started the season well by stopping the Browns’ hype train in dominant fashion on the road. The team failed to keep the momentum from its first win of the year, however, and lost four of its next five games — including a 16-0 shutout in Denver. A change at quarterback, however, brought a change in fortunes and the Titans went onto a solid run that saw them lose only one of their next seven games.

Head coach Mike Vrabel’s team therefore entered the last three weeks of the season with serious playoff aspirations. While a home loss against Houston hurt the team’s chances, a Pittsburgh Steelers collapse against the lowly New York Jets the following week put Tennessee back on track — and a 35-14 win in Week 17 sealed the deal and secured the sixth postseason seed in the AFC for the club.

Three storylines that describe the 2019 season

The departure of Matt LaFleur: Even though the Titans fielded just the 27th ranked scoring offense in the NFL in 2018, the Green Bay Packers decided to hire the team’s offensive coordinator — one that had arrived just one season earlier — as their new head coach. With Matt LaFleur gone, Tennessee opted to hand the position to tight ends coach Arthur Smith. The move paid major dividends after a mid-season quarterback change. Speaking of which...

The quarterback change: The Titans acquired former Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill via trade during the offseason but had him start the year as the backup behind Marcus Mariota. However, Mariota’s early-season struggles led Mike Vrabel to make a change — a season-saving decision: Tannehill has been lights out since becoming the starter in Week 7 and has played some tremendous football. In 12 games so far this season, he has completed 70.3% of his pass attempts (201 of 286) for 2,742 yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The well-balanced offensive attack: While Tannehill taking over Mariota’s role was the biggest catalyst for Tennessee’s offensive resurgence, the role of running back Derrick Henry cannot be underestimated either: despite playing in only 15 games this year, the fourth-year man led the league in both carries and rushing yardage gained during the regular season and finished with an impressive 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 attempts — making him the only back in the league to average more than 100 rushing yards per game this season.

Three players to know

WR A.J. Brown: 19 picks after the Patriots drafted N’Keal Harry, the Titans picked fellow wide receiver A.J. Brown — and he has been a revelation for their offense. The second-round rookie leads the team in every major passing category and has caught 52 passes for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns as Ryan Tannehill’s favorite target. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots opt to use All-Pro cornerback Stephon Gilmore against the youngster.

DT Jurrell Casey: Tennessee’s defense is a middle-of-the-pack unit in most statistical categories, but that does not mean it fields no standout players. Enter defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who remains among the most impressive defensive tackles in the NFL. The 30-year-old is a productive pass rusher — he is second on the team with 33 quarterback disruptions — but might be even better when it comes to stopping the run. If New England wants to establish a presence on the ground, limiting Casey’s impact will be key.

FS Kevin Byard: One of the most consistent safeties in the NFL ever since joining the Titans as a third-round draft pick in 2016, Kevin Byard leads the team with five interceptions this season — and not just that: his versatility allows defensive coordinator Dean Pees to move him around the formation, while Byard excels not just as a deep centerfielder or in one-on-one coverage situations but also as a run-stopper. He is one of the better safeties in the league.

What to watch this week

While New England’s offensive struggles played a big role for the team’s Week 17 loss, the unit still put the team in a position to come away victoriously if only the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense had made one stop. It did not, and now the Patriots have to play on wild card weekend. The question is whether or not the unit can bounce back from a disappointing game against Miami versus one of the hottest offenses the league currently has to offer.