A five-game winning streak suddenly has catapulted the New England Patriots in the mix for grabbing the top playoff seed in the AFC. In order to secure position for that, they will need to pick up a win against their Week 12 opponent, the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans are coming off a very rough loss against the Houston Texans. Not only did they not take care of business against a division opponent on the road, they suffered some key injuries on the offensive side of the ball. Now, they have to travel to Foxborough trying to hold off the Baltimore Ravens or Patriots from leapfrogging them in the playoff picture.
A win for the Patriots would be critical, as it would give them a head-to-head tiebreaker against a team that is still very likely to win the AFC South title. New England knows all too well that Tennessee is not going to lie down for this game, though.
The team is coached by former stud linebacker Mike Vrabel, whose team takes on a similar identity to what his former coach has morphed New England into this season. The Patriots have more talent available for this game, which should make them favorites, so they need to take care of business if they see themselves as a potential title contender.
Offense: Keep Jeffery Simmons in check
If there is one player on the Tennessee defense that’s a true game-wrecker, it is defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Simmons is having a Defensive Player of the Year-type of season with a career high 7.5 sacks and four passes batted down.
No game perfectly encapsulated how Simmons can wreck a game more than the Titans’ Week 9 win over the Los Angeles Rams. Simmons had 3.0 sacks and disrupted many more plays as the Titans soundly beat the Rams 28-16. The Titans have some very good players at each level of the defense beyond just Simmons, but keeping him in check will be absolutely critical for the offense to make things happen.
The key players to achieve this goal are the starting interior O-line trio of Ted Karras, David Andrews, and Shad Mason. It will require more than just those three to get the job done, though. Simmons is too physically talented for them to block 1-on-1, but they will need to do more than just double the likely All-Pro DT in order to get some success when he’s on the field.
The Patriots did a good job of neutralizing Myles Garrett in the Patriots blowout win against the Cleveland Browns, when they used his aggression and desire to rush up the field as quickly as possible against him. It’s easier to do things to an edge guy than an interior pass rusher, but I assume New England will have something special in store for Simmons. Expect the Patriots to utilize trap runs, wham blocks from odd angles, and perhaps the kitchen sink if necessary to slow him down.
The Patriots are able to practice against that type of player, though. Second-round rookie Christian Barmore carries a similar body type and game as Simmons.
Offensive X-Factor: RB Brandon Bolden
The Patriots have gotten stellar play from both Brandon Bolden, who has emerged as a reliable third-down back. Bolden has stepped up after the season-ending injury to James White as a guy who can not only pass protect against blitzes, but crush linebackers in the passing game as a receiver.
He’s not a top running threat, but he is a good complementary piece to the other backs on the roster. The Patriots will have opportunities with Bolden against the Titans’ backup linebackers.
Defense: Take away the play action passing game
When things are going well for Tennessee, it runs the ball followed up by the play-action passing game against single-high safety looks. Since Derrick Henry is the toughest running back to stop in the game right now, it forces defenses to put that safety into the box which opens up opportunities for A.J. Brown and the tight ends off play-action.
With Henry and Brown out, however, expect the Patriots to play a lot of two-deep looks and dare Ryan Tannehill to beat them with his arm in a drop-back game. In the past, during his time with the Miami Dolphins, that approach has worked against the quarterback.
In the secondary, the Patriots shouldn’t have any match-ups that could create problems if they stay focused. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine is the top receiving threat with Brown, Julio Jones, and receiving back Jeremy McNichols all out for the game. Expect to see New England als incorporate some man coverage and Cover 0 looks to simulate and send pressure after Tannehill.
Defensive X-Factor: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley
It is important for the Patriots to shut down the Titans running game without having to commit an extra safety in the box and leave themselves vulnerable to the play-action passing game that makes the Titans a tough opponent to beat. Enter Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Bentley has been playing like a heat-seeking missile, often finding himself in the opponent’s backfield at full speed to attack the ball carrier to disrupt plays. The key will be for the Patriots to attack the running backs in pass protection, and they have the players at the second level to do just that — starting with Ja’Whaun Bentley.
Score Prediction: Patriots 24, Titans 13
Given the Titans’ injuries, I just don’t see how the Patriots lose this game if they are able to Do Their Job on both sides of the ball. The key for New England is to force long fields for the Titans with their top-notch special teams unit because I don’t see the offense being able to sustain drives with so many key contributors out due to injuries.
On the offensive side of the ball, the match-up of the Patriots running backs against the Tennessee substitute linebackers is too appealing and could allow the Patriots to hold off a very ferocious Tennessee defense. Mac Jones throws two touchdowns, one to Hunter Henry and the other to Bolden with one turnover leading to a Tennessee touchdown.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots are able to force a pair of turnovers, one interception and a strip sack by Deatrich Wise Jr, to lead to a couple easy drives for the Patriots offense.