Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Patriots vs. Titans Preview (1/7/2004)

In the national media build-up to Saturday's Patriots game, it seems like the Titans somehow became the #1 seed with the best record in the NFL this year. Now it's the "massive Tennessee defensive line" that will man-handle the Patriots offense; it's Tennessee's "wounded warriors" Steve McNair and Eddie George who will control the clock and the game; it's Tennessee's "dominating" special teams and great kickers who will mean the difference if the game is close. Don't believe it for a minute.

This is a very common phenomenon. In fact, it's repeated every year. The "experts" always pump-up teams that win their first-round playoff games. Somehow, they forget that the first and second seeds got bye weeks because they were the better teams, and they predict upsets or very close games. There are two main reasons for this. First, the higher seeds did not play last weekend, but the other teams did; and a win is always more impressive than no game at all. In the "what have you done for me lately" world of sports, the team that won is the "hot" team, and the team that rested for a week somehow doesn't look as impressive. Second, most of the experts have a vested interest in getting you to watch the games. I wouldn't expect the ESPN, Fox or CBS experts to predict blowout wins because people might not watch; and that's bad for business.

The Titans benefit from this phenomenon. But the really over-hyped team is the new media darlings, the Indianapolis Colts. Every year, one team is a blowout winner the first weekend of the playoffs, and the media make them the trendy pick to go to the Super Bowl. Trouble is, it almost never happens. The next week, the media darling has to go on the road and play a team that had a week off and a better record, and the media darling almost never prevails. New York Jets of 2002, who beat the Colts 41-0 then lost to Oakland 30-10. The year before, Baltimore beat Miami 20-3 then lost to 27-10 to Pittsburgh. The year before that, Philly beat Tampa Bay 21-3 then lost to the New York Giants 20-10. Each of those teams became the media favorite when they beat up on teams they were supposed to beat up on; but things changed when they went up against superior teams in the next round. Kansas City hasn't played well lately, so this year's game could be close, but I fully expect the Colts to lose this weekend.

With all that said, here are some thoughts on Saturday night's Patriots game.

The fact that Tennessee was #1 versus the run is irrelevant to this game.

The Patriots were near the bottom of the league in rushing yards and make no bones about it. (Don't be fooled by how the Pats ran the ball in their last two games. The Jets are awful against the run, and the Bills quit playing after the first series.) Even though they ran well against the Titans earlier this year, the Pats will use short passes to compensate for the lack of running. Tennessee has undoubtedly practiced against the quick passes, but so has every other team the Pats played and they still finished 14-2.

The Patriots will have to be aware of Titans defensive lineman Jevon Kerse. He is a speed rusher with a long arms and great leaping ability and could cause problems with the short passing game -- so the Pats would be well advised not to throw too many quick-hit passes to his side of the field. I expect the Pats to go deep a few times to loosen the Titan defense so they can run the ball a little bit. If it isn't too windy, look for Bethel Johnson or David Givens early. And given the extra week of practice they had, look for improved timing in the short-passing game and a few trick plays they haven't shown all year.

The Patriots defense against the Titans offense is a significant advantage for the Patriots. To refer back to what I said a few paragraphs ago, the press has somehow forgotten that the Patriots led the lead in fewest points allowed, defensive touchdowns, and shutouts. This isn't a really good defense, it's a great defense -- especially at home. They were missing five or six starters in the first Titans game. But since that time, they've played six home games and given up the following point totals: 6, 3, 0, 0, 13, 0. That's about 4 points a game. Now, those teams weren't as good offensively as the Titans are, but even if you assume they can score equal to the most they Pats gave up in those games (13), that means the Patriots only have to score 14 points to win. I just can't see Tenesssee loading up on points against a Patriots defense that is one of the five best NFL defenses I've ever seen. Eddie George didn't even run for his season average in the first game, and we were missing half our defensive line and half our starting linebackers. Ted Washington and Richard Seymour give the Pats great run-stopping and a solid pass rush without the blitz. They've got two shut-down corners and a ton of speed in their punishing secondary. And their linebackers are among the most flexible in the league -- they can cover the middle on pass plays, hit hard to stuff the run, or rush the passer.

As for special teams, with Troy Brown and Bethel Johnson, the Patriots have the most dangerous kick return tandem in the league. The Tennessee punt return team did pretty well this year, but their kickoff returns are nothing special. The Patriot kick coverage teams are vastly improved over last year, and even with their punting woes, they're near the top of the league in kicks downed inside the 20. And in the placekicking world, Gary Anderson is fine, but I doubt he could kick a 45-yarder in the absolute freezing cold he'll face Saturday. Adam Vinatieri had a bit of a subpar season, and one would hope he worked all bye week to get his timing and rhythm back. But no one in NFL history made more clutch playoff kicks than he did in 2001 -- when the going get tough and you need those points, there's no one else you'd rather have.

As for coaching and intangibles, I see them mostly favoring the Patriots.

Tennessee went on the road last week for a big emotional win in Baltimore.
They're on the road again this week, in an even colder environment, against a much better team that had a week to heal, with a more raucus crowd, and they are banged up. Add to all that the Patriots coaching staff and the confusion they cause in their opponents with only a week to prepare; now imagine what they'll do with two weeks (in fact, they've won 3 of their last 4 games after a bye week) -- and you've got to feel pretty good about their chances. The coaches always keep the team focussed on the game at hand, and with two weeks between games, they will come out fired up and ready to go.

Because of all that, I just can't picture a way the Titans can win this one.
I don't usually go for the overwhelming "can't lose" stuff, but this seems like a double-digit win for the Patriots. I won't predict the score, but I think late turnovers could make this a 14- or 17-point victory for the Pats. Of course, all the usual caveats apply: "any given Sunday," "whichever team plays better," "gotta win the turnover battle," and all that -- but this game just doesn't seem as close as the media might want it to be. But all in all, it should be a good game and I'm looking forward to it.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "I've heard all the blathering about how great the Titans played last week. But the Patriots earned their bye week because they are a better team than the Titans. Heck, the Titans only beat one playoff team all year -- the Panthers -- and they went 1-3 against playoff teams during the regular season. The Patriots went 5-0."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

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