The last time these two teams met, it wasn’t a good time in New England. In the wild card round in the 2019-20 AFC Playoffs, Patriots fans witnessed Tom Brady‘s last game as a New England Patriot. In a 20-13 loss, Titans running back Derrick Henry bullied New England’s run defense and sent the miserable Patriots packing. Now in 2021, the Patriots have gone through a violent change, and have returned from one down year as one of the top contenders of the AFC. Meanwhile, the Titans have begun to reach their complete form, going all-in on the offense by acquiring Julio Jones in the off-season to pair up with A.J. Brown for Ryan Tannehill, and a dominant run game with Henry.
Unfortunately, two out of those three names will be unavailable for this marquee matchup in Foxboro on Sunday. Derrick Henry suffered a brutal foot injury earlier this season, and could be out the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Julio Jones was placed on injured reserve a few short weeks ago and won’t be eligible for Sunday. To add insult to injury, A.J. Brown didn’t practice on Wednesday for Tennesee, which marks him as questionable at best for this week. The last time the Titans were this injured, they lost to the New York Jets, a team the Pats have already knocked off twice.
The Patriots are at near-full strength and will look to begin this brutal part of the schedule with a win, and stay in the lead of the AFC East over the 7-4 Buffalo Bills. So without further delay and hopefully no further food comas ahead, set it up, Bailey! Let’s get this one started.
Three Keys to The Game
Key #1: Get Physical on Defense
The Patriots are playing against a whole lot of backups at key skill positions. Bill Belichick is going to have to revert to one of his classic premises when playing against high-powered offenses back in the early 2000s: be more physical. The great secondaries of Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, and Lawyer Milloy were so good because they’d be constantly banging on receivers and backs. Even in coverage, wearing offenses out immensely leaving little to no gas in the tank come crunch time. Without Derrick Henry, there won’t be much return of fire when it comes to the big hits and rough-housing. If the Patriots can empty what’s left of this Titans offense, they should be sitting pretty come the third quarter.
Key #2: Give Mac Jones A Chance To Throw
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones continues to impress. Through the five-game win streak, Jones has top 5-10 grades, and some even the best grades and stats, according to PFF. Last week it wasn’t the greatest of air shows. But Jones continued to be dangerously poised and accurate. He’s by far been the most impressive rookie out of the 2021 class. He may be the most impressive rookie since 2018, or even further. This Titans defense isn’t anything special. They rank 27th in passing yards allowed. Opening up the playbook might not be a bad call in a brisk Gillette Stadium come Sunday. I don’t think he’ll ever post the numbers that Brady has in Tampa, but Mac Jones continues to improve every week. There’s no reason that arch stops here.
Key #3: Force Turnovers
It’s no secret that Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill struggles without Derrick Henry to open up his play-action passes. Assuming that the Patriots’ 11th ranked rushing defense can hold together, it shouldn’t be an issue frustrating Tannehill. That should open up the opportunity for guys like Mr. Interception, J.C. Jackson, and others to make the most of bad decisions by the former Dolphins signal-caller. Keep that dangerous offense on the sideline, and the Patriots should escape with a win. I mean, the Texans knocked them off last week, it’s obvious that this Titans team isn’t quite the elite and functioning franchise they have been in recent seasons with their health in the gutters.
X-Factor: Jonnu Smith
The storyline here is just too juicy to pass up. The Patriots signed Jonnu Smith in free agency to help sure up a position they ranked last in usage last year. The duo of Smith and Hunter Henry has been phenomenal thus far, but Henry has received a much greater share of the love than Smith to start the year. But Jonnu has a shot at redemption this week versus his former team this week. We’re all patiently waiting for the Jonnu Smith breakout game. This season, he’s peaked at 5 catches for 42 yards in week one versus the Dolphins. It’s been a steady decline until he’s plateaued at a one-catch-a-game pace. If there’s any time for a breakout performance from the 26-year-old veteran, it’d be at this revenge game versus the Titans.
From an entertainment standpoint, I would have loved to see both of these teams fully healthy and go head to head. There’s a good chance this won’t be the last time these two teams meet up, as both of these franchises seem destined for the playoffs. But we make with what we have. And the Patriots caught a gigantic break. No Henry, no Julio, and maybe no A.J. Brown for Sunday. Tannehill versus the world doesn’t usually end well. And Bill Belichick is notoriously good at exposing you before you even know your weaknesses. It surely doesn’t help the Titans being injury-riddled to hell.
I doubt we see a rematch of the classic 2003 AFC Divisional Round, but at the same time, I don’t expect the blowout either. The Patriots are a good squad. And despite the Titans injuries’ former Patriot Mike Vrabel is an excellent head coach. This game shouldn’t disappoint. It’s a game I am beyond excited to attend in person. But I do expect a Patriots victory on Sunday. This team is just on a roll, and the Titans are beat to hell coming off of some embarrassing losses. The only thing standing in the way of extending this win streak to six games headed into a big divisional matchup versus Buffalo this week? Themselves.
Final Score: 31-20, Patriots Win (8-4)