By Matt Citak
Wild Card Weekend is behind us, and after an upset in Kansas City and a low-scoring affair in Jacksonville, the AFC Divisional Round matchups are set. The Tennessee Titans, fresh off their win over the Kansas City Chiefs, will travel to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots on Saturday. The following day, winter conditions are expected in Pittsburgh as the Steelers welcome the Jacksonville Jagaurs to Heinz Field.
One week after going into Arrowhead Stadium and beating Andy Reid and the Chiefs, the Titans will look to do the same against Bill Belichick and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Saturday night. Despite playing without leading rusher DeMarco Murray, Tennessee picked up over 200 yards rushing against Kansas City. Led by Derrick Henry’s 156 yards, the Titans averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 31 rush attempts. Marcus Mariota showed how dangerous he can be as a dual-threat quarterback, throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns while adding eight carries for 46 yards. Mariota’s favorite target throughout the regular season was tight end Delanie Walker, who led Tennessee in receiving last week with six receptions for 74 yards. However the young quarterback may have trouble finding Walker in the red zone on Saturday, as the Patriots have not allowed an opposing tight end to score since Week 6.
The biggest story out of Foxborough over the last week was the report about a rift between Belichick, Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft. All three have since addressed the story and seemingly quashed the rumor, but don’t think that will stop the head coach from using it as extra motivation heading into this Divisional Round contest. The Patriots enter this matchup against the Titans as heavy favorites. New England boasts one of the league’s deadliest offenses, ranking first in total yards per game (394.2) and second in both passing yards (276.1) and points per game (28.6). The Patriots defense also improved drastically as the season has progressed. Despite finishing the regular season ranked near the bottom of the league in total yards allowed (366.0) and passing yards allowed per game (251.3), the Matt Patricia-led defense was fantastic at keeping opponents out of the end zone. New England finished the year allowing an average of 18.5 points per game, which ranked fifth in the league. The Patriots may be big favorites, but they will need their defense to be at its best to avoid the same fate as the Chiefs.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Jaguars escaped Jacksonville with a 10-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills last weekend. Blake Bortles had one of his worst games of the season throwing the ball, completing just 52.2 percent of his passes for a season-low 87 yards and a touchdown. His 3.78 yards per attempt was also his lowest mark of the season, but the fourth-year quarterback more than made up for it with his abilities as a runner. Bortles racked up a career-high 88 rushing yards on 10 attempts, six of which resulted in first downs for the Jaguars. But it was Jacksonville’s defense that truly got them the win at home last week. The Bills gained just 263 total yards against the Jaguars, including only 133 passing yards between Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman. This sort of defensive performance should have come as no surprise, as Jacksonville’s defense has been great against the pass all season. The Jaguars surrendered 169.9 passing yards per game this year, which was by far the lowest in the NFL (the Vikings were second at 192.4).
This weekend’s matchup between the Jaguars and the Steelers will be the second meeting between the two franchises this season. In Week 5, the Jaguars defense forced Ben Roethlisberger to throw five interceptions and no touchdowns en route to a 30-9 Jacksonville win at Heinz Field. The five picks were the most in the seasoned quarterback’s career, and actually had the 14-year vet questioning whether or not he could still succeed in the NFL. However those doubts did not last long, as Roethlisberger would go on to throw 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in his final 10 games of the regular season. The Steelers QB will have to be careful against a Jaguars defense that ranked second in the league in interceptions (21) this season, but he should benefit from the return of wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown suffered a significant calf injury during Pittsburgh’s Week 15 loss to the Patriots, but returned to practice this week for the first time in over three weeks. It remains to be seen how close to 100 percent the star receiver will truly be for this matchup, but just having him out on the field should give a boost to Pittsburgh’s offense.
THE NFL TODAY analyst Bill Cowher weighed in on this weekend’s AFC Divisional Round matchups. THE NFL TODAY with Cowher, James Brown, Phil Simms, Nate Burleson and Boomer Esiason airs Saturday at 7:30 PM ET and Sunday at 12:00 Noon ET on CBS.
Tennessee Titans vs. New England Patriots – 8:00 PM ET Saturday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: What will Marcus Mariota need to do for the Titans to pull off the huge upset in New England on Saturday?
Bill Cowher: For Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans offense, it’s about running the football and utilizing the play-action pass. When you look at the best way to stop Tom Brady, it’s to keep him off the field. Derrick Henry has been running the football really well. Marcus Mariota will have to use his feet to extend plays and extend drives on third downs, which means he may have to run with the football. Tennessee should also utilize the play-action pass. The one guy who’s a big factor for Mariota is Delanie Walker. He’s one of the better tight ends in the league. At some point, take your shot with Corey Davis down the field. But for Marcus Mariota, he has to protect the football, use his feet, and hopefully the play-action pass will be there.
CBS Local Sports: Will last week’s report about possible turmoil between Belichick, Brady, and Kraft have any affect on the Patriots in this game?
Bill Cowher: It will, and it will be all positive. With Belichick, it brings the focus back in-house to them. He loves having questions be about the team. They will will turn this into a positive. They will turn this into a focus. They will turn this into an “us against the world” [mindset], because everyone is trying to tear them apart. A lot of times, when you are at the top, everyone is looking for a chink in the armor to take you down. When you try to play that card against Bill Belichick, he’ll use it against you.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – 1:00 PM ET Sunday – CBS
CBS Local Sports: One of the reasons the Jaguars won last week was because of Blake Bortles’ ability to run the ball. How will the Steelers stop him from picking up first downs with his legs on Sunday?
Bill Cowher: The Jaguars are one-dimensional right now. For Blake Bortles, his feet have been a big part of that running game. The Steelers have to put them in third-and-long situations and make Bortles win the game by throwing the ball, not running with it. The Steelers have to be disciplined in their pass-rush lanes, making sure they can put pressure on him. The Steelers will see if Bortles can make throws down the field. A big part of Pittsburgh’s success will be their ability to stop Leonard Fournette first, Bortles running the ball second. [Make them beat you with] Bortles’ arm, not his legs.
CBS Local Sports: The Jaguars enter this Divisional Round matchup with one of the league’s top defenses. What will Ben Roethlisberger have to do differently from their Week 5 meeting that saw him throw five interceptions for the Steelers to come out on top?
Bill Cowher: Jacksonville has one of the best defenses in the National Football League. They have speed at every level. They have depth up front to rush the quarterback. They have playmakers on the backend, headed by A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. They have speed at linebacker. For Ben Roethlisberger, with the way he has played this last month, he must be patient and take what the defense is giving him. He has his weapons. Le’Veon Bell, whether he’s running the football or catching check-downs [is one of the best in the league]. The biggest thing they have to do in this game is finish drives and not settle for field goals. That was the difference in the first game. The big key in this matchup will be third-down conversions, and, more importantly, Pittsburgh’s ability to finish drives with touchdowns in the red zone.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.