NFL GAME PREVIEW

Patriots hope Super effort returns vs. Titans

Field Level Media

January 01, 2020 at 8:23 am.

The New England Patriots are wobbling into the postseason as opposed to arriving in their typical stellar form.

A lackluster December cost the Patriots a first-round bye, and they will be competing in the AFC wild-card round for the first time since the 2009 season when they host the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night in Foxborough, Mass.

Third-seeded New England (12-4) lost three of five in December, including a stunning 27-24 setback to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday to assure there would be no bye.

The late-season struggles have erased the Patriots from being mentioned among the Super Bowl favorites. Running back James White is aware of that perception but says the focus has to be solely on the sixth-seeded Titans (9-7).

“We all didn’t play our best football last week, and we all obviously wanted to play better but we didn’t,” White said during a Tuesday press conference. “Can’t sulk on that. It’s a playoff game here, you play to play in these games right here. We’re all excited to get back out there.”

Tennessee landed a playoff berth on Sunday with a 35-14 victory over the Houston Texans, who rested quarterback Deshaun Watson and other key players. It is the Titans’ second postseason berth in the past three seasons.

Running back Derrick Henry will certainly get a lot of work after rushing for an NFL-best 1,540 yards in addition to scoring 18 touchdowns (16 rushing, two receiving). But the player most under the microscope is quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will see action in his first career postseason game.

Tannehill was superb after replacing Marcus Mariota as the starting quarterback following Week 6. Overall, the 31-year-old passed for 2,742 yards and 22 touchdowns against six interceptions while completing a franchise-record 70.3 percent of his passes and averaging an NFL-best 9.6 yards per attempt.

“It’s obviously a big opportunity for us, a huge challenge on the road,” Tannehill told reporters. “I always wanted to be playing in January and competing for a championship.

“It is the playoffs, and everything amps up a little bit. … I definitely expect it to be an intense game.”

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t looked so super during his age-42 season. He completed just 60.8 percent of his passes — tying for the third-lowest ratio of his career — while passing for 4,057 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

There is a lot of chatter that Brady’s passing elbow is ailing, but he continues to insist that all is well with his right arm.

“It’s feeling good. I don’t have any problem,” Brady said on his weekly radio show. “I have no injuries. I’ve said it, like, a lot. I feel good. There’s no injury, no nothing. I wish I would’ve played better, and that’s about it.”

Even with the rumblings, New England ranks seventh in the NFL in scoring offense at 26.2 points per game. The passing attack ranks eighth (247.6 yards per game), and standout receiver Julian Edelman has 100 catches for 1,117 yards and six touchdowns.

The Titans rank 24th against the pass (255.0 yards per game) and 21st in total defense (359.5 yards per game) but are hoping to get cornerback Adoree’ Jackson back. He missed the past four games with a foot injury.

Tennessee’s defense includes solid playmakers in linebacker Harold Landry (team-best nine sacks) and safety Kevin Byard (five interceptions).

The Patriots have two players with five or more picks. Stephon Gilmore tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions while safety Devin McCourty had five.

Linebacker Jamie Collins had a team-high seven sacks for a unit that led the NFL in scoring defense (14.1-point average) and total defense (275.9 yards per game) and ranks second in passing defense (180.4 yards per game).

The matchup is the first in postseason play between Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel and Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Vrabel, a former linebacker for New England who was part of three Super Bowl titles, guided the Titans to a 34-10 rout of his former mentor in a regular-season game in 2018.

Of course, the stage is significantly bigger on Saturday. And Vrabel says there is no advantage to having inside knowledge on how Belichick thinks and prepares.

“There’s a fine line between just going ahead and changing a bunch of stuff and thinking, ‘Well, they’re going to do this, so we can’t do that,'” Vrabel said. “… So Bill will prepare his team like he does, and I’ll do the best job to get our guys ready to play.”