Chad Finn

Patriots have a score to settle with the banged-up Titans, so expect tricks and a tight, rugged game

Mike Vrabel exploited a rule loophole in Tennessee's playoff win two years ago, something Bill Belichick won't forget.

Jonnu Smith has just 22 catches for 210 yards, but will he break out against his former team, the Titans? WINSLOW TOWNSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By design, and by good fortune too, so much has gone right for the Patriots during the five-game winning streak they carry into Sunday’s matchup with the Titans.

After losing to the Cowboys in overtime Oct. 17, the Patriots were 2-4 this season and 13-18 (playoffs included) since Week 9 of the 2019 season. There were reasons for hope — namely the rapid acclimation of rookie quarterback Mac Jones — but the timeline for sustained success remained murky.

Then the Patriots, in sequence, throttled the Jets by 41 points, neutralized Justin Herbert and the Chargers, and thumped the Panthers, Browns, and Falcons by a combined 94-13.

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Young players besides Jones — Christian Barmore, Kyle Dugger, Rhamondre Stevenson — blossomed into impact players. Imported veterans — Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and that red-sleeved one-man wrecking crew Matthew Judon — fit seamlessly with rejuvenated holdovers.

Suddenly, the losses to the Cowboys and Buccaneers no longer felt like disappointments, but clues that this team could play with anyone. The Patriots are not just a contender in the AFC. They might be the favorite. And those longing for a prolonged rebuild are realizing the wish will go unfulfilled.

Fortune is with the Patriots this week, too. Mike Vrabel’s Titans arrive in Foxborough with an AFC-best 8-3 record and a roster decimated by injuries.

Derrick Henry crammed a season’s worth of production for most quality running backs (937 yards, 10 touchdowns) into eight games before he was lost to a foot injury.

Top receiver A.J. Brown (chest), along with linebackers David Long (hamstring) and Rashaan Evans (ankle) were ruled out Friday. And the Titans are coming off a disappointing loss to the lowly Texans. The Patriots couldn’t have picked a better time to play them. It’s the kind of a break a team gets in a season that suddenly has a touch of serendipity to it.

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Kick it off, Bailey (or will it be Folk?), and let’s get this thing started.

Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs

Kevin Byard: Tell me, am I the only one who chronically refers to the do-it-all Titans safety as Keith Byard, an obvious conflation with dependable former Patriots running back/tight end hybrid Keith Byars from the Parcells years. No? Just me? Fine, I’ll own it alone.

Byard — you know, Kevin — is an exceptional player in his own right, a free safety who is good at so many things you have to figure Bill Belichick, a connoisseur of versatile safeties, would make him a Patriot if there was a do-over of the 2016 NFL Draft. (The Titans took Byard with the first pick of the third round, four picks after the Patriots took Cyrus Jones. Ouch.)

Byard broke through in 2017 when he intercepted 8 passes, recovered 2 fumbles, finished second on the Titans in tackles, and earned first-team All-Pro honors. He’s been both excellent and durable since, never missing a game in his six NFL seasons. This year, he leads the Titans with five interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and he returned a fumble for another score.

The Titans are allowing 253.3 passing yards per game, 23rd in the NFL entering Week 12, and Mac Jones should be able to get what he wants underneath if the Patriots’ pass protection holds up against Landry (10 sacks) and Justin Simmons (7.5). Byard is the one Titans defensive back who could interfere with the Patriots’ plans.

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Dontrell Hilliard: How battered are the Titans? They made 16 transactions Tuesday, including waiving 36-year-old running back Adrian Peterson and signing 33-year-old receiver Golden Tate to the practice squad. Tate hasn’t played in an NFL game since Week 14 last season with the Giants, but the Titans are in such dire straits at the position that it’s plausible he ends up seeing significant playing time soon.

It’s hard to fathom that it could be this week, though, even with A.J. Brown (by far the Titans’ top receiver (46 catches, 615 yards, 3 touchdowns) ruled out.

The Titans’ second-leading receiver, veteran Julio Jones (21 catches, 336 yards, no touchdowns) is on injured reserve. Third-down back Jeremy McNichols (25 catches) is also out, and no Titans tight end has more than 138 receiving yards.

So who, exactly, will be on the receiving end of Ryan Tannehill’s passes? It might be Hilliard by default and attrition.

The well-traveled running back (he’s played with the Browns and Texans since entering the league in 2018) has played just two games for the Titans, but he made his most recent one count, catching 8 passes on 10 targets for 47 yards against the Texans last week. He also ran 7 times for 35 yards in the best performance of his career.

He’ll get a chance to repeat it Sunday. It will be shocking if he does.

Jonnu Smith: Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said this week that this is in some ways a “foundational year” for the tight end, who left the Titans in the offseason to sign a four-year, $50 million deal with the Patriots.

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He’s played fewer than 50 percent of the offensive snaps, has often been deployed as a blocker, and has just 22 catches for 210 yards.

But his athleticism stands out when the ball is in his possession, and a breakout performance against his former team is not out of the question.

Grievance of the week

The case for Rodney Harrison as a Pro Football Hall of Famer received some welcome attention this week, and the hope was it might even lead to some momentum toward his overdue election.

Former Patriots general manager Scott Pioli, who played a significant role in bringing Harrison to the Patriots before the 2003 season, wrote a column for NFL.com that detailed a statistical case for Harrison beyond all of the intangible reasons. Tom Brady retweeted Pioli’s piece. Titans coach Mike Vrabel said his former teammate “should get in.”

Later Tuesday, the Hall of Fame revealed its list of 26 semifinalists for the Class of ‘22. Patriots greats Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork were on it. Harrison, a semifinalist last year, was not.

What a travesty. Harrison should be enshrined already, and there is no logical reason for his candidacy to be regressing.

He was a two-time Super Bowl champion, the turbo-charged version of predecessor Lawyer Milloy, a safety who hit with blunt force on the field and led by speaking blunt truths.

As Pioli pointed out, Harrison was the first player in NFL history to accumulate more than 30 sacks and 30 interceptions in a career. Ray Lewis, a no-doubt selection in his first year eligible in 2018, was the second. No one else has done it.

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Pioli also noted that Harrison’s statistical case is superior to John Lynch’s, who was a member of last year’s class. (Lynch and Harrison were teammates for about three weeks with the Patriots in August 2008.) “Over the course of their careers,’’ wrote Pioli, “Harrison had more interceptions [34-26], sacks [30.5-13] and defensive touchdowns [2-0] than Lynch despite playing 38 fewer games.”

I’m not usually big on diminishing one player’s accomplishments to build up another’s, but in Harrison’s case it is necessary — and will continue to be until he is rightfully enshrined.

Key matchup

Patriots running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson vs. Titans run defense

The Patriots have featured some exceptional running back combinations through the years. When the 1978 Patriots set an NFL record with 3,165 rushing yards, three running backs (Sam Cunningham, Andy Johnson, and Horace Ivory) plus quarterback Steve Grogan ran for more than 500 yards, and Craig James and Tony Collins combined for almost 1,900 yards for the 1985 AFC champs. LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis delivered thunder and lightning in 2015-16. Corey Dillon/Kevin Faulk and Curtis Martin/Dave Meggett were dynamic primary runner/pass-catcher tandems in their day.

But I can’t recall a tandem in which two backs had a more similar primary skill than Harris and Stevenson — namely, the refusal to stop fighting, and churning for an extra yard or 10. Entering Week 12, the Patriots are 14th in the league in rushing (116.3 yards per game), and they’re trending upward. In their five-game winning streak, they’ve averaged 151.8 yards on the ground. That includes 134 Sunday in the suspense-free 25-0 win over the Falcons in which Harris (10 carries, 56 yards upon returning from a concussion) and Stevenson (12 carries, 69 yards) essentially split the workload.

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The running game has been enhanced by the return of right tackle Trent Brown, who not only has made an immediate impact but has allowed McDaniels to deploy 330-pound Michael Onwenu as a de facto blocking tight end.

But the Titans, provided enough of their starters in the front seven are healthy, won’t give up ground without a fight. Tennessee is fourth in the NFL in run defense (97.2 yards per game); only the Buccaneers, Ravens and Saints have allowed fewer yards per game (prior to Thursday’s games).

The Titans will be without linebackers Long and Evans again — both missed the loss to the Texans. And defensive tackle Teair Tart, who had to be carted off against Houston, is also out.

As a group, the Titans are tough and fundamentally sound tacklers, and defensive end Jeffrey Simmons is an all-around force, but attrition could work against them in their quest to slow Harris and Stevenson Sunday.

Prediction, or Jeff Fisher would have found a way to go 8-8 even in a 17-game season

I’ve got two predictions for you, actually, besides the score:

1. We’re going to see multiple trick plays from both teams.

2. The Patriots would drop 60 points on the Titans if they get the chance.

Let’s address the second prediction first. Make no mistake, this is a revenge game for the Patriots. The Titans ended the Tom Brady era with a 20-13 victory in the divisional round of the 2019 playoffs, and they pulled it off in part because of some Belichick-like gamesmanship from Mike Vrabel. The Titans coach and defensive star of three Patriots championships exploited a rules loophole — one that had benefited the Patriots earlier in the season — to run 1 minute and 55 seconds off the clock late in the fourth quarter. With no case and to no avail, Belichick ranted to the officials on the sideline. Vrabel enjoyed every second of it. There is no way Belichick has forgotten this.

That playoff game also featured quite a bit of trickery. Julian Edelman put the Patriots ahead in the second quarter on a 5-yard touchdown run in which Brady acted as if Edelman had lined up in the wrong spot before taking the snap and handing him the ball. Later, McDaniels got a little too clever, calling for a handoff to linebacker-turned-fullback Elandon Roberts on third and 1 near midfield. The Titans stuffed it. The Patriots also tried a flea-flicker on the first series of the game.

The Patriots are going to show the Titans things they haven’t seen on film. And the Titans almost have to turn to trickery given how shorthanded they may be on offense. In their current state, it is not difficult to prepare for them. The Titans are tough. The Patriots are tough, healthier, and better. Patriots 20, Titans 16

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