By Gregory Hunt
A playoff birth has already been clinched, but the New England Patriots are looking to secure their seventh consecutive AFC East championship when they meet the Tennessee Titans Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. With a victory, the Patriots will also clinch their 13th division title in 15 years. The game will be New England's final home game of 2015, as the team will finish the regular season with road games against the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
The Titans hold a 3-10 record, putting them in last place in the AFC South, three games behind the 6-7 Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans who are in a first-place tie for that division. Tennessee has not won consecutive games this season, with the team's three wins coming in Weeks 1, 9 and 13. Oddly enough, two of the team's victories came on the road. Last week, the Titans dropped a 30-8 decision to the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Tennessee's all-time series against New England dates back to 1960, when the franchises became charter members of the American Football League as the Houston Oilers and Boston Patriots (the Houston franchise relocated to Tennessee in 1997 and the team was renamed the Titans two years later). The Titans trail the regular season series 15-22-1, but the teams are tied 1-1 in the postseason. The Patriots have won the last five meetings, most recently a 34-13 victory at LP Field on September 9, 2012. Tennessee's last victory in the series was a 24-7 win at The Coliseum on December 16, 2002.
Titans on Offense
Tennessee rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota has shown flashes of playmaking ability this season, but he's not getting much help from his teammates. The lack of a running game is limiting the effectiveness of the play-action pass, and none of his receivers are winning one-on-one matchups with any regularity. Wide receiver Kendall Wright is the team's best slot receiver, but a rib injury forced him to miss the game against the Jets. Tennessee's only score last week came on a trick play when running back Antonio Andrews completed a 41-yard touchdown pass to Mariota.
The Titans are currently ranked 29th in the NFL in total offense (324.5 yards per game) and 27th in the league in scoring offense (19.5 points per game). Only four times in 13 games has the team scored 30 points or more. Five times the Titans have been held to 10 or fewer points, although they've yet to suffer the indignity of getting shut out.
Titans on Defense
Despite not getting much support from the offense, the Tennessee defense has put up some respectable statistics, ranking 13th in the NFL in total defense (344 yards per game) and tied for 7th in the league in sacks (35). The team ranked only 27th in total defense last year, but defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau thinks a top-10 finish is a possibility this year.
"I definitely think (a top-10 finish) is important to (the players)," said LeBeau last week. "And I think they'll fight to do that."
The Titans have plenty of depth at linebacker, so they typically play a 3-4 defense. The unit's biggest weakness is that it gives up too many explosive plays. Tennessee is giving up 8.1 yards per pass play this season, and only the New Orleans Saints are giving up more.
Titans Players to Watch
With three games to play, Delanie Walker has already broken the franchise's single-season record for receptions by a tight end with 74 catches. At 6-foot-0, 248 pounds, Walker is considerably smaller than your typical NFL tight end, but the 10th-year player from Central Missouri State is a threat to make a big play every time he catches the ball.
For the past three seasons, linebacker Brian Orakpo has been slowed by injuries, but this year he is on pace to play in all 16 regular season games for the first time since 2011. The former Texas Longhorn is a major reason why the Titans have been so successful putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year.
The Patriots have been playing solid defense this season, so it's unlikely that Mariota and the struggling Tennessee offense will put up many points against New England. Even though the Tennessee defense poses some threat to New England quarterback Tom Brady, though the Patriots were still successful moving the ball last week against a superior Houston Texans defense. In recent weeks, the Patriots have been making a number of mistakes on special teams, so the Titans will need to take advantage of this trend if they want a reasonable chance of beating New England.
Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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