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Do the Titans Actually Have a Chance This Weekend?

[h/t to Toucher and Rich for finding the greatest fight song ever written]

Titans

This is that time of year when every Patriots-hating hack in the old Boston media bitches about how bad their playoff opponent is. Which not only diminishes their accomplishments by insinuating they get lucky every year, like the NFL Playoff Selection Committee puts them in a weak bracket despite their low strength-of-schedule, it ignores some of the very good teams they’ve drawn in the Divisional Round. Take, for recent examples, the 2014 Ravens or the 13-4 Texans in 2012. Not to mention seasons like 2003 when they had to beat both league co-MVPs (Steve McNair and Peyton Manning) or 2004 when they beat a 13-4 Colts team and then go on the road to beat the 16-1 Steelers. So don’t talk to me about Tomato Cans and a weak conference just because the Patriots are an outlier.

Which brings me to tomorrow night’s game. Because once again that’s the toner-stained wretches are doing. Breaking out the column they wrote about Denver in 2011, Mad Libbing in the word “Titans” for “Broncos” and the name “Marcus Mariota” for “Tim Tebow” and passing it off as original work. And sure, I could do the same. I could look at the Pats -13.5 and play to type as the fanboy who thinks there’s just no way the Titans make it close.

But that’s not what I’m raking in those sweet, sweet Cherninbucks to do. Here are just a few ways I think Tennessee can make a game of it:

Derrick Henry
I admit that the Titans losing DeMarco Murray is a break for New England. I for sure thought that when Henry ended the regular season with that 28-carry, 51-yard crapfest against Jacksonville. But he ran his ass off against a decent Chiefs defense that was keyed to stopping him last week. According to Pro Football Focus he ran primarily to the offense’s left, with 19 of his 23 carries and 140 of his 156 yard to that side. The Patriots mix up their defensive line and don’t necessarily keep their tackles on any particular side, but they had the second worst yards per rushing attempt in the NFL (4.7).

The Deep-Passing Defense
Last week the Titans defenders for the most part dropped down to load up against the Chiefs running back passing offense, basically daring Alex Smith to burn them deep. He didn’t. And while you can say “Of course he didn’t; he’s Alex Smith,” he led the NFL in passer rating on balls over 20 yards, with 12 TDs and only 1 interception. Brady was fifth, with 5 and 4. Again going by PFF, opponents’ passer ratings on deep passes against Tennessee was only 40.1, the second lowest in the NFL. And Adoree’ Jackson personally only gave up 24.5, also the second lowest among all corners, not just rookies.

Kevin Byard
Believe me, I take a back seat to no man when it comes to the raging wood I have over the thought of a healthy Rob Gronkowski making a playoff run for the first time in a while. Especially given he basically had a bye during the last game of the season. But Kevin Byard is one of the best free safeties in the NFL. Granted, he won’t be “assigned” to Gronk – the Titans don’t do that (more on that in a minute) – but Gronk won’t be singled up on a Sean Davis like he was on the final drive of the Pittsburgh game, either.

The Good Marcus Mariota
Don’t accuse me of starting the weekend drinking early. I mean, I have. But that’s not why I’m showing respect for one of the NFL’s truly below average starting quarterbacks. It’s just that while Mariota is capable of some real flaming bags of dogshit (his four INT game against Pittsburgh), he can also put together stretches where he’s more Gollum than Smeagol. And he’s kind of in one right now, with just three picks in five December games. Anyway, we’ve sat and waited before for a mistake-prone QB to make a mistake (think Mark Sanchez in 2010) only to see him play a clean game. Weirder things have happened.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still confident the Pats will win. I’m not that drunk. And might even cover like they did in last year’s Divisional Round with an even bigger spread despite playing one of their worst playoff games of the Bradichick Epoch. And here’s why:

The Short Passing Game
I mentioned how Tennessee loaded the box to neutralize the Chiefs backs catching passes. That’s because they had to. They were worst in the NFL at it this year. Against tight ends, they were 24th. Despite a Pro Bowl season by Byard. I mentioned last week that Dion Lewis led the league in catch percentage and had zero drops on 35 targets. I neglected to mention that Rex Burkhead (healthy again) was fifth. Or that James White (also healthy) was 17th, and is a bigger threat out of the backfield than either of them.

Dick LeBeau
I admit that LeBeau is a national treasure and disparaging him is like wiping your crack with Old Glory. He’s an innovator who revolutionized the way defense is played in the NFL and has been doing it the same way since before most Barstool readers were born. But the one guy with all the counter spells to LeBeau’s wizard tricks is Tom Brady. Brady has faced LeBeau once since he took over the defense in Tennessee and seven times, including one playoff game, when he was with Pittburgh. In those eight games, he’s 6-2 with 19 TDs, just three picks, a completion percentage over 68 and he’s averaging 312 yards per game. In fact, his only two games when he wasn’t a total Electric Factory against LeBeau’s defenses was his first two, in 2004 and ’05. In the last six he’s thrown 17 touchdowns and no interceptions with his lowest passer rating being 101.8.

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Dick LeBeau is a Hall of Famer with a defensive formula that baffles quarterbacks. It’s so good he’s never had to change it. It’s part of his greatness. But Brady solved the equation like Will Hunting over a decade ago. And by this point LeBeau can’t change it. So he’s going to run the same disguised zone blitzes. Try to generate the same “safe pressure.” And continue the same zone coverages. Like I mentioned earlier, the Titans never once all season put a defender on a receiver and told him to shut the guy down all for the game. They’ll continue to do what they do. Defend an area. Maybe mix in some pattern read. Try to surprise Brady by dropping lineman into the short passing lanes. And the Pats should be able to attack the soft parts of the zones or find the biggest mismatches and exploit them like they’ve done before.

So again, I’m saying the Pats should and probably will win and go to their seventh straight conference title game. It’s just that unlike some of the goons writing about it in New England, I’m saying it won’t be easy and nothing is a given. Except the fact that Titans fight song is a fire jam.

 @jerrythornton1