Patriots turn to focus to Titans, not controversy
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Having already survived two win-or-go-home battles, the Tennessee Titans face their toughest test when they visit the defending champion New England Patriots in Saturday night's AFC divisional round game.
The Titans pulled out a 15-10 home win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in their regular-season finale to earn a spot in the playoffs. They then went on the road and rallied from 21-3 down and stunned the Kansas City Chiefs 22-21 to advance for the second time.
Now, the Titans are two-touchdown underdogs as the Patriots are expected by most people to take the next step toward their sixth Super Bowl crown of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady Era.
"It just shows that how tough of a team they are under the pressure," New England's Rob Gronkowski said earlier this week. "They've basically won two playoff games -- one to get into the playoffs and a playoff game last week. It just shows how tough they are, how fundamental they are and that they're ready to bring it in the clutch times."
The Patriots have won the last six games between the teams and the Titans haven't won in Foxborough since 1993, when they were the Houston Oilers.
While the Titans were pulling off their major comeback against the Chiefs, the Patriots were going through another bye week, but one that was filled with controversy. An ESPN report dealt with dissension among New England's power trio of owner Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady -- much of it centering around the Pats' trade of Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers for just a second-round draft choice.
So, the Patriots have been dealing with questions all week -- as the Titans just prepare.
"You know what, I'll be honest with you, I don't know anything about it," Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey said on a conference call with the New England media, regarding the controversy. "I'm not a social media guy. I don't know enough, I really don't, to make any comment about something like that."
One thing, besides championships, the Patriots have become known for is blocking out distractions. Belichick simply won't allow any outside stimuli to affect his team.
"Throughout my years here I've seen a lot of negative, a lot of positive," Gronkowski said Tuesday. "The reputation that Coach tries to get us to have is just ignore the noise -- ignore the noise from the outside and I feel like that's what myself and a lot of other players have been doing.
"You just gotta ignore the noise and just focus on what we've been doing all year and that's preparing hard, studying our opponent, getting ready, mentally and physically for the big game, so what's going on on the outside, as a team, as an organization, just gotta keep grinding, keep going, keep doing our job."
The New England defense is spending the week preparing for mobile quarterback Marcus Mariota, a third-year pro who can make things happen with his legs. He ran 87 yards for a 2015 touchdown.
"He actually knows when to run and when to pass the ball when scrambling," Patriots safety Duron Harmon said Wednesday. "It's a very unique skill because a lot of guys once they get scrambling, they're not even looking downfield anymore, they're just looking to run. But he always has his eyes downfield -- always knows when to run, when to throw the pass, I would say his touch on the ball, too, that gets people open when he's scrambling."
Mariota, who threw 13 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions during the regular season, had two touchdown passes and one pick in the playoff win. One of the touchdowns passes actually went to himself after Darrelle Revis batted down one of his passes before Mariota caught it and scored.
But Mariota was also sixth in the NFL (Brady was first) in third-down passer rating.
Wednesday, the Titans announced running back DeMarco Murray will miss his third straight game with a knee injury, while the Patriots could get both James White and Rex Burkhead back to further fortify a running game that has excelled even without them thanks to Dion Lewis.
Earlier this week, Titans' All-Pro safety Kevin Byard said the goal of his defense is pretty simple -- turn Brady into Blake Bortles.
"It's a playoff game, so it's not like it's the preseason where I can go out there, 'Oh, it's Brady,' and I'm chillin'," Byard said Tuesday.
"This is a playoff game. So I don't really care if it was Joe Montana. You know what I'm saying? I'm trying to go out there and win the game. I want to make him look like Blake Bortles if I can and try to catch a couple picks.
"Tom Brady is a great quarterback, but it's a playoff game. I'm not really looking at it like that."
Cornerback Logan Ryan, a former Patriots player now with the Titans, has been limited in practice with an ankle injury.