The final regular season game of the year has playoff implications for the 8-7 Titans, something thought to be improbable after an 0-5 start. Tennessee must win to remain in contention for a playoff berth, and will also need help from Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco.
The Titans will face the 11-4 AFC East champion New England Patriots, who currently have the AFC number four seed in the playoffs. A Patriot win plus an Indianapolis loss would give New England the third seed.
Field: Grass. Forecast: A 60% chance of showers, mostly cloudy, high near 66°, S wind 10-15 mph, with gusts to 25 mph. Kickoff: 12:00 noon, CT.
New England Scouting Report:
The three-time Super Bowl champion Patriots have clinched their fourth consecutive division title, and fifth in six years. Although it's unsure how many starters coach Bill Belichick will rest, one can look to history for a clue. The Pats were in a similar situation a year ago, assured of a playoff spot, and Belichick was cautious, electing to sit his stars for most of the final regular season game.
QB Tom Brady (3304 yards, 23 TDs) took a questionable hit on his right (throwing) shoulder at Jacksonville last week and is listed as probable on the injury report. The probable future Hall of Famer is expected to start for the 105th straight game, but will likely sit out most of the game after several series. Second-year pro Matt Cassell will get the work for the rest of the day.
New England has a good one-two punch in the running game with veteran Corey Dillon (745 yards, 11 TDs) and rookie Laurence Maroney (672 yds, 5 TDs). They average 4.1 yards per carry. Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans may also see action.
The passing game doesn't have a receiver that can be focused on, as Brady likes to spread the ball around. Eleven different players have recorded double-digit receptions, eleven have caught touchdown passes, and five of them are tied for the team lead with three TDs apiece. WR Reche Caldwell leads the team in receptions with 57, and TE Benjamin Watson leads with 643 receiving yards. New England likes to use a lot of two and three-tight end sets.
Offensive linemen are usually unrecognized, but the Pats' O-line has been good enough to make the running game work, protect Brady, and star in a TV commercial.
New England has the eighth-ranked scoring offense (23 ppg), are eleventh in total offense with 330 yards per game, and twelfth in both rushing (120 ypg) and passing (211 ypg).
The Patriots' 3-4 defense is largely responsible for the teams' three Vince Lombardi trophies in the last five years. Perhaps the closest comparison to a defense the Titans are familiar with is Miami's, in that both show a lot of looks out of their 3-4s.
RDE Richard Seymour is the only Pat defender who garnered Pro Bowl honors this year, selected as an interior lineman. LDE Ty Warren has 77 tackles and 6½ sacks. NT Vince Wilfork returned to practice this week after missing the last two games.
Inside linebackers Teddy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are very active, leading the team in tackles with a combined 191, plus six passes defensed, five sacks, four interceptions, three fumble recoveries, and two forced fumbles. Outside backers Rosevelt Colvin (7½ sacks) and Tully Banta-Cain (5½ sacks) are both good at putting a hand down and rushing the passer.
Titan fans have been talking about the possibility of acquiring CB Asante Samuel (8 INTs) in free agency and they'll get a chance to watch him at work. SS Rodney Harrison is the glue that holds the secondary together. He played last week for the first time since breaking his shoulder in November.
The Patriots are second in the league in scoring defense (14.3 ppg), fifth against the run (92 ypg), sixth in total defense (291 ypg), and 13th in pass defense (200 ypg).
Special teams -
Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri left in free agency, and has been replaced by Stephen Gostkowski (18/23, long 52). Ken Walter punts for only 36.9 yards gross and 33.7 net. Kevin Faulk is a good punt return man, averaging 10.6 yards, fourth best in the league. Maroney has a nifty 28-yard return average on kicks, second in the league. Last week, Ellis Hobbs returned three kicks for a 27.7 average, and has returned five for the season with one TD and a 45.4 average. The cover units allow 8.2 ypr on punts (16th), with one TD, and 23.1 on kicks (23rd).
This contest will be much like a preseason game for New England. They probably won't play most of their starters past the first quarter and won't show anything new, just sticking with their basic stuff. On the other hand, it's a must-win game for the Titans. Expect Jeff Fisher to do the unexpected in the way of trick plays, fake punts, onsides kicks, etc., if the game is close.
Weather will probably be a factor with the rain and wind, meaning both teams will try to run more than pass.
Tennessee's O-line vs New England's front seven. Michael Roos and Jacob Bell vs Seymour will be a good matchup to watch.
David Givens won two Super Bowl rings with the Patriots. Reserve DE Sean Conover is from Massachusetts.
New England beat Tennessee 38-30 in October 2003. Ty Law intercepted a Steve McNair pass and returned it for a touchdown to clinch the game.
Special teams and turnovers will probably determine the outcome of this game, especially if the weather is a factor. The Titans should have an advantage if Belichick pulls Brady from the game early and rests other players as expected.