The No. 1 seed in the AFC is up for grabs Sunday as the leading Tennessee Titans visit the surging New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.
Tennessee (8-3) suffered a shocking 22-13 home loss to the Houston Texans last week, snapping its six-game winning streak. Now the Titans will try to hold off a Patriots team that has won five straight and sits one game behind them atop the conference standings.
New England (7-4) enjoyed an extended break after a 25-0 thumping of the Atlanta Falcons on the road last Thursday. A win on Sunday, coupled with a loss by the 7-3 Ravens versus Cleveland on Sunday night, would thrust the Patriots into the top spot in the AFC via tiebreaker.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick knows first hand how hard wins are to come by against the team coached by his former star linebacker.
“They’re a typical Mike (Vrabel) team,” Belichick said. “They’re tough. They’re physical. They make you beat them. They don’t make many mistakes.”
The Vrabel-led Titans dealt Belichick’s Patriots a 20-13 playoff loss in Tom Brady’s final game as a Patriot two seasons ago in the wild-card round on Jan. 4, 2020 in Foxborough.
Vrabel, who played eight seasons and won three Super Bowls with New England under Belichick from 2001 to 2008, also beat his former coach 34-10 at home in Week 10 of his debut season on the sidelines in 2018.
Vrabel doesn’t expect a third victory over Belichick’s team to come easily.
“They are not turning it over, they are not doing things to beat themselves. Obviously they have done a great job of taking advantage of bad football,” Vrabel said. “(They are) well-coached, they are running the football, they are playing physical. It will be a huge challenge.”
Last Thursday versus Atlanta, the Patriots only scored one offensive touchdown — a 19-yard pass from rookie Mac Jones to Nelson Agholor — and had a dominant showing on defense that included a 35-yard pick-six by Kyle Van Noy.
Jones finished 22-of-26 for 207 yards, one touchdown and an interception. Fellow rookie Rhamondre Stevenson rushed for a team-high 69 yards and veteran Damien Harris picked up 56 yards on the ground, where New England outgained Atlanta 134-40.
Without injured star running back Derrick Henry, the Titans have found other ways to move the ball. Even in defeat, Tennessee outgained Houston 420-190 in total yardage despite quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s career-high four interceptions.
On Tuesday, the Titans released former All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson, who had just 27 carries for 82 yards and one score in three games. The move leaves Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman to handle the load in the backfield.
Tennessee will also be depleted in the passing game. With star wideout Julio Jones already on injured reserve, the Titans practiced without A.J. Brown (chest) on Wednesday. Ten players in all did not practice Wednesday while five more were limited.
New England had full attendance at its pre-Thanksgiving Day practice on Wednesday, although 11 players were listed as limited. Harris (neck), tackle Trent Brown (calf), tight end Hunter Henry (neck) and Dont’a Hightower (ankle) were among those who had a limited workload.
Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith was also limited due to a shoulder injury.
Smith would face his former team if he can play this week. He spent his first four NFL seasons with the Titans before signing with New England in the offseason.