Two teams whose 2014 seasons were polar opposites meet at Gillette Stadium this Sunday, as the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots take on the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, Marcus Mariota and his Tennessee Titans. One potential storyline for this game was the McCourty twins facing off against one another, but Jason, Tennessee’s cornerback, was placed on injured reserve in November, and Devin, New England’s star at safety, is questionable for the game with an ankle. Indeed, to summarise the Patriots’ season this year in brief, it’s been winning with… who, exactly? New England’s injured reserve list is as long as the Baltimore Ravens’, who have won only four games this year. After a terrific start, the Pats lost two games in two weeks, to the Broncos and the Eagles, but showed something of a return to form against Houston last week. Bill Belichick continues to find players to do their jobs, and it is, once again, paying off. Tennessee’s 2015 has been somewhat less successful, and although rookie QB Marcus Mariota has shown flashes, including being the first player since Walter Payton in 1983 to score 40+ yard touchdowns via passing, rushing and receiving, it wasn’t enough to save Ken Wisenhunt from getting the axe, with Mike Mularkey taking over as interim. Currently sitting in the basement of the poor AFC South, the Titans are underperforming this year and look to be continuing the rebuild.
Keys to the Game
1. Next Man Up
This is the point of the season where injuries are taking their toll, particularly for teams whose bye week came early. Bill Belichick has proven every year that he can prepare his players, adjust for injuries, and bring through new names to make up for missing stars. Running back LeGarrette Blount is the latest Patriot on IR. Look to James White and Brandon Bolden to step in where at the start of the year it was Dion Lewis and Blount.
2. Protecting the Quarterback
Marcus Mariota has shown himself to be one of the most versatile offensive weapons in the game this season, and keeping him away from the clutches of Alan Branch and Chandler Jones will be a priority for the Titans. Tom Brady has one of the quickest releases in the NFL, which is a good thing, as his O Line hasn’t been able to prevent him being hit, hard and frequently, over the past few weeks.
More often than not, if a team wins the turnover battle, they win the game. Both teams this season have had key turnovers cost them dear, and sloppy execution on offense and special teams is a surefire way to raise the blood pressure of both fans and coach. Efficiency and execution will go a long way to determining the outcome of any encounter, and they are two things that both teams have struggled with at points this season.
Rob Gronkowski vs. His Coverage
One of the hot button issues in press conferences this year for coaches facing the Patriots has been how to cover Gronk. Although traditionally tight ends tend to be covered by a linebacker or strong safety, or combination of the two, Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams, and however he is covered, he seems to come up big. It’s hard to say how the Titans will deal with the best TE in the game, but Dick LeBeau is a wily old head, and is likely to scheme in his capacity as the Defensive Head Coaching Assistant to come up with a creative way to try to stop him
It’s hard to see past New England to win this game, and win it well. Expect Jimmy Garoppolo to take the last few snaps in a blowout.