The New England Patriots host their Divisional Round matchup with the Tennessee Titans tonight and are heavy favorites to win the game. However, this is the NFL, where any given team can win on any given Sunday. Here are a few things to be on the lookout for as you watch the game.
Wide receiver Chris Hogan and linebacker Kyle Van Noy were both removed from the injury report yesterday, which indicates that both will be active in tonight’s game. However, it will be worth noting if either of them are on the field full-time as they were early on this season, or if they are only included in certain packages. Van Noy was eased back into the lineup two weeks ago — he was on the field for 12 snaps — so it wouldn’t surprise me if the coaching staff felt he was able to transition back into a full-time role tonight. On the other hand, this will be Hogan’s first game since the Patriots’ Week 14 loss to the Miami Dolphins, where it was apparent that he was still hurt. The Patriots might be more cautious this time around by only including him in certain plays.
In addition, both defensive tackle Alan Branch and running back Rex Burkhead returned to practice this week and may be able to play in tonight’s game. If they do indeed play, it will also be worth noting how much time these two spend on the field. This, however, leads to some questions: is Hogan healthy enough to justify making Phillip Dorsett or Kenny Britt inactive, and is Branch healthy enough to justify making Ricky Jean Francois inactive? If you do not know, each team is required to designate seven players as inactive about 90 minutes prior to kickoff. It’s safe to say that RB Mike Gillislee, OL Cole Croston, LB David Harris, and ST/DE Geneo Grissom will be inactive regardless, but the final three spots will likely come down to Francois, Dorsett, Britt, Branch and Burkhead. It’ll be interesting to see how the final list shakes out.
One play concept that the Patriots ran an awful lot of last year was the “smash-seam” concept: the two outside receivers (one of which was usually fullback James Develin, who would be split out wide to help determine if the other team was in man or zone coverage) would run five yard curls, while the two inside receivers (usually tight end Martellus Bennett and Chris Hogan) would run right down the seam. This play worked particularly well against zone coverage; Tom Brady would either throw to Hogan or Bennett if the cornerbacks played a short zone, or would hit one of the outside guys if the cornerbacks went deep. I particularly remember the Patriots running this play against the Pittsburgh Steelers to great effect last season. I say all of this because Titan’s defensive coordinator is Dick LeBeau, the same guy who instituted the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme so many years ago. Given that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Josh McDaniels take a page from last year’s playbook and run this play a few times tonight.
Game Prediction: Patriots 30 – Titans 16