Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots
Sunday January 14th, 01:15 GMT
Live on Sky Sports
Wow, wow, wow. Anybody who saw last weekend's playoff game between Tennessee and Kansas had to marvel at the amazing comeback by the Titans and the stunning individual performance of Marcus Mariota. The Titans quarterback ran like a frightened Cam Newton, made clutch throws under pressure, and even played blocker for the go-ahead score. I should also say he was unbelievably lucky too. Catching your own pass, rebounding of an opponent, for a touchdown? That's the fantasy stuff of comic books. But in the second half on Saturday, it was that kind of game, as everything Mariota touched turned to gold.
Down by 21-3 at half time, the Titans looked buried. But it was here that Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey got creative. With his job reportedly on the line, he needed to pull a rabbit from a hat. Instead, he pulled out 30 minutes worth of inventive play-calling. On several occasions, a well-organised Kansas defense looked downright flummoxed by the misdirection of Mularkey's plays. Couple that with great protection from the defensive line, and some blistering, improvised runs from Mariota, and just about everything the Titans attempted - came off.
Mariota the real deal
'They were lucky', many will cry. And indeed they were. But you also make your own luck. And there was nothing flukey about the protection Mariota got last week, or his acceleration out of the pocket. So I'll venture now that whatever he achieved against Kansas, the TItans' QB can surpass against New England. These words may come back to haunt me, but I'll say it now with confidence that this Patriots team is vulnerable on defense, and that's why they won't retain their title. The Pats start this game as huge favourites, but I believe they'll concede lots of points to this inventive Titans offense, and therein lies huge value for punters, by backing the Titans to get over their quote of 17 points.
The Patriots conceded more passing yards than any team in the league. The Chiefs weren't much better, but we should expect an uptick for the Titans offense here. I'd look out especially for running back Derrick Henry as a receiver. I'm a huge Henry fan. A frustrated one for much of the season, as his opportunities have been limited. But with DeMarco Murray injured, Henry's now showing what he can do. The Pats were second worst in the NFL for receiving yards allowed to running backs. Still relatively unknown, Henry remains underrated and offers great value on the individual markets.
This Patriots D is one of the worst in the NFL and especially when it comes to rushing yards conceded to opposing quarterbacks. So I expect Marcus Mariota to skip his way to a large tally. He should also pass his way through a weak Patriots secondary. It could be any of Eric Decker, Delanie Walker and Rishard Matthews who benefit. Matthews has the most TDs, four, but made only one catch last week. And the Pats don't give up many deep balls. So I like the look of Walker (3TDs) to get plenty of action underneath.
But now that I've got Titans fans all excited, allow me to disappoint you. Because the Patriots are still monsters of offensive production. The Titans run defense is stout and should contain New England there. But Tom Brady and his vast array of receivers should run wild against Tennessee's very mediocre secondary. The Titans employ a typical game plan of defending deep, and conceding space underneath. So that could mean a busier than usual night for Danny Amendola in the slot. New England's pass-catching running backs could prosper too. But whether it will be Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead or James White is anyone's guess, given coach Bill Belichick's penchant for switching RBs.
Gronk to star
Malcolm Mitchell, who starred in last year's Super Bowl, has just returned from injury. And question marks over several Pats receivers, plus Belichick's habit of going with the most unexpected option, make him a sneaky play to return with a bang. In fact I'd choose him over the more obvious Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks. But it's the man mountain Rob Gronkowski who should be the star. His size and movement should see him feast on the soft centre of the Titans defense. A big target, Tennessee won't be able to stop him and should settle for trying to limit his gains after the catch. I like Gronk to get a ton of targets and to find the endzone.
The Pats should win but their price is a joke. There should be lots of points for both sides and the greatest value lies with backing the Titans in multiple areas. Marcus Mariota looks an outstanding bet to rush over 28 yards. I like him for 50 plus. And Tennessee could get risky and creative again if trailing at the break, so I really like the Titans to win the second half handicap - as shown last week, if Mike Mularkey's team are to go down, it won't be for lack of trying.