Photographs by AP/CHARLIE RIEDEL
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (right) hands off to running back Derrick Henry last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Titans won 22-21 to advance to a divisional-round matchup tonight against the New England Patriots.
Saturday, January 13, 2018
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two things, among many, have been consistent for the Patriots the past decade: Tom Brady at quarterback and New England in the AFC championship game.
Brady will try to lead his team to its seventh consecutive conference title game today when it hosts the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round.
It has been a challenging week off the field for the Patriots following reports of turmoil involving Brady, Coach Bill Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. But Brady said he's never doubted his team's ability to compartmentalize potential distractions.
"I think we have a job to do and we know what our job is and that's to go out and play football at a high level and play well," he said. "Nothing really should get in the way of that."
Tennessee hasn't been to a conference championship game since the 2002 season, but has been invigorated coming off its first playoff victory in 14 years.
The Titans enter as a 13-point underdog, but linebacker Derrick Morgan said it's a role they happily embrace.
"Nobody respects us. Nobody really expects a lot from us. That's fine," he said. "We haven't been a very successful team in the last 10 years. So it's easy for people to overlook us. So we've got to take care of business and start winning games like this to get the respect that we desire."
To get it, they'll have to stop a quarterback that has been nearly unbeatable in this round of the postseason.
Brady is 11-2 in 13 divisional-round games since 2002, passing for 3,700 yards and 28 touchdowns.
He also has a 6-1 career record against the Titans with 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was mostly unflappable in leading his team back from an 18-point halftime deficit to beat Kansas City -- the largest comeback on the road in the Super Bowl era.
But since 2001, quarterbacks making their first or second career playoff start are 0-7 against New England.
"When it comes down to it, it's all about us," Mariota said. "I think that's kind of been the mindset through this entire season. Ups and downs come and go, you just want to try and make the most of this opportunity."
Mariota, the 2014 Heisman winner, and Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman winner, combined to turn in the best rushing performance in franchise history in the wild-card round. Henry ran for a career-high 156 yards, and Mariota added 46 yards. Henry will be starting his third straight game with DeMarco Murray already out (right knee).
The Titans ranked fifth in the league with 43 sacks during the season and added four more against the Chiefs last week. Three-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey had six from his interior spot, while Morgan led the Titans with 7 ½ sacks. Linebackers Brian Orakpo (seven) and Wesley Woodyard (five) give the Titans a variety of options to attack Brady, not counting backup linebacker Erik Walden (four).
New England has 41 players with postseason experience, most of 2017 playoff teams. Fourteen Patriots players have played at least 10 playoff games. That's more such players than 11 other playoff teams combined (13). Before the start of this postseason, the Titans had 18 players who had appeared in a playoff game.
Today's game will be Bill Belichick's 37th career playoff game as a head coach, breaking a tie with Tom Landry and Don Shula for the most in NFL history.
There aren't too many current NFL coaches that have been around the game longer than Belichick and Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
LeBeau has an NFL-record 45 consecutive seasons as a coach, with Belichick at 43. Yet, with Belichick as head coach, he and LeBeau have faced off in the playoffs only once: the 2004 AFC championship game that New England won in Pittsburgh 41-27.
The respect between the two is mutual.
"Not very many coaches have the record Coach Belichick's gotten. In fact he's probably closing in on the best ever," LeBeau said.
Said Belichick: "Coach LeBeau is as good as there is, as good a defensive coach as there is."
NFL divisional playoffs
All times Central
Atlanta at Philadelphia, 3:35 p.m. (NBC) Tennessee at New England, 7:15 p.m. (CBS)
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh, 12:05 p.m. (CBS) New Orleans at Minnesota, 3:40 p.m. (Fox)
Titans at Patriots
7:15 p.m., CBS
LINE — Patriots by 13½ SERIES — Patriots lead 24-16-1; Patriots beat Titans 33-16, Dec. 20, 2015
(RK) TITANS VS. PATRIOTS (RK) (15) 114.6 RUSH 118.1 (10) (23) 199.4 PASS 276.1 (2) (23) 314.0 YARDS 394.2 (1) (19) 20.9 POINTS 28.6 (2)
(RK) TITANS VS. PATRIOTS (RK) (4) 88.8 RUSH 114.8 (20) (25) 239.2 PASS 251.2 (30) (13) 328.0 YARDS 366.0 (29) (17) 22.2 POINTS 18.5 (5) KEY MATCHUP QB Tom Brady vs. Titans’ pass rush: When the Patriots lose in the playoffs, it’s normally because the other team consistently gets to Brady. The Patriots had a harder time protecting the future Hall of Famer this season, and the Titans tied for fifth in the NFL with 43 sacks.
Sports on 01/13/2018
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