FOXBOROUGH -- The stars definitely will be out tonight at Gillette Stadium. Both the Patriots and Tennessee Titans feature several of the league's marquee names. The Titans have Eddie George, Jevon "The Freak" Kearse, and Steve McNair. The Patriots counter with Tom Brady, Ty Law, and Richard Seymour. And any one of several other players on either side is capable of turning in a performance that could go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this AFC divisional playoff game.
But if both teams play defense tonight the way they have all season, the stars of the game could turn out to be . . . Ken Walter and Craig Hentrich?
The Titans led the league in third-down defense during the regular season, allowing opponents a conversion rate of just 27.7 percent (51 of 184). Tennessee annually is among the better teams in the league at getting off the field on third down. That was a major problem for New England's defense last season, when it finished 26th in third-down defense. Coach Bill Belichick got himself a new, faster secondary, and the Patriots got better at getting off the field. They're seventh, holding opponents to a 34.5 percent efficiency rate (81 of 235).
That could make for a busy night for the punters, and in a matchup of two tough teams with strong defenses on a frigid night, you know field position is going to have a say in who goes on to next week's AFC Championship game.
How's this for a prediction?: The team that has the higher success rate on third down will win.
Said Titans coach Jeff Fisher prior to the playoffs, "Turnovers are first, they're paramount. You have to have turnovers. If you don't have turnovers, in order to have a chance to win you have to get off the field on third down."
The Titans place such an emphasis on third-down defense that one of Jim Schwartz's primary responsibilities before becoming defensive coordinator in 2001 was coordinator of their third-down packages.
First and second down isn't a breeze against these guys, either. "Their first- and second-down defense . . . [creates] a lot of long-yardage situations," Belichick said. "They're also at the top of the league in run defense, so it's not like people are first and 10, second and 7, third and 2, picking up 4 yards a clip in the running game. That's a problem. And they're very good on defense. They have a good scheme, they're well coached, they have a good pass rush, and they have good people that can cover, starting at the corners. When you've got good coaching, good football players, and a good scheme, and some long-yardage situations, then all those stars line up to good third-down defense."
Remember how bad New England looked in losing, 24-7, at Tennessee last season? Part of it was going 2 for 11 on third down. But by the rematch Oct. 5 at Gillette, the Patriots had figured out how to beat Tennessee's third-down defense. Don't get to third down, but if you do, don't get into third and long.
Walter punted only twice in the first meeting this season, as the Patriots converted 6 of 12 third downs, one of only two teams to convert at least half its third downs against Tennessee. The Patriots helped themselves by gaining 103 of their 161 rushing yards on 17 first-down runs, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Overall, New England averaged about 5 yards on first down.
A closer look inside the numbers shows that Tennessee is actually exceptional at third-and-long defense. The Titans' regular-season opponents converted just 9.5 percent of third-and-10-or-more situations (6 of 63). The success rate increased to 23.4 percent on third and 5 to third and 9 (15 of 64). With 4 or less to go, opponents got first downs 52.6 percent of the time.
The Titans have had quite a tough time on first down this season to be so tough on third down -- they give up an average of 5.8 yards on first down.
How's this for a prediction?: The Patriots are going to come out throwing against the best run defense and 30th-ranked pass defense in the league. If it doesn't work, best wishes to Walter and Hentrich when it comes time to kick those rocks disguised as footballs through swirling winds.
"It really starts with first and second down," Patriots guard Damien Woody said. "Because those downs are critical to us having success on third downs, we don't want to put ourselves in bad situations coming up into third and 9, third and 10, because when you're in that type of situation, then they're going to pin their ears back, they're going to blitz, they're going to do all the things to make you really uncomfortable as an offense. So the most important thing for us is to keep ourselves on schedule, on track, get it to third and 3, stuff like that, where we can really open up our playbook and have a lot of different options as far as play-calling."