The Titans will get their first look this season at linebackers Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel, nose tackle Ted Washington, running back Kevin Faulk and tight end Daniel Graham. The Titans, meanwhile, will get a boost from defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, linebacker Peter Sirmon and cornerback Samari Rolle, the latter of whom played only about four plays in the first meeting before suffering an injury.
The return of all those players, particularly the large amount on the defensive side of the ball, should have an impact on the game in relation to the high-scoring first meeting back in October. It's a safe bet that this game won't see 68 points scored.
Vrabel and McGinest will start at outside linebacker for the Patriots and each has had a strong season, combining for 15 sacks and 148 tackles. Washington, and his 45 tackles and two sacks, will start on the nose.
The Patriots played a 4-3 front in the first meeting and will almost certainly use a 3-4 look this time around while mixing in the 4-3 as they generally do on a weekly basis.
In the kicking game, Antwan Harris, who scored one of those special teams touchdowns in the 2001 playoffs, will likely be inactive. He was active in 13-of-16 games this season, but with Je'Rod Cherry and Chris Akins both healthy and rookie Shawn Mayer playing well on special teams, Harris will likely be left off the game day roster as he was in the season finale. In fact, it is reasonable to expect the same seven inactive players from the last week of the season to remain inactive this weekend -- Dedric Ward, Anthony Pleasant, Rick Lyle, Harris, Mike Cloud, Wilbert Brown and Fred Baxter. Lyle or Pleasant, both of whom have significant postseason experience, could replace one of the younger players on the game day roster, perhaps rookie linebacker Tully Banta-Cain.
Offensively, New England isn't likely to line up and run the ball for 161 yards as it did in the first meeting. While guard Damien Woody is looking forward to the physical challenge the Titans present because he feels like no one expects New England to run successfully against Tennessee a second time, he may not get the chance to play smash-mouth football, at least not early. Expect the Patriots to try to spread the Titans defense and make them cover four- and five-wide formations where New England can try to attack certain matchups.
The key for the Patriots in this approach will be pass protection. The Patriots front five will have to stop the Titans aggressive rushers to give Brady time to throw and pick on any mismatches. If Tennessee is unable to generate pressure with its front four, it will have to blitz to disrupt the Patriots air attack and try to force Brady into a mistake by sitting on the receivers in press coverage -- a risk-reward strategy. Brady generally unloads the ball quickly in that situation with defensive backs sitting back in coverage to prevent a big play on a blitz.
The Patriots might even use a no-huddle approach early on to keep Tennessee from rotating fresh bodies onto its defensive line and then try running out of multiple receiver threats while the Titans front is in pass rushing mode. If New England can get the Titans aggressive front seven thinking pass, it might be able to hit it with some big runs and then go to play action to keep the Titans off balance. Tight end Daniel Graham could be a downfield factor in this game.
Defensively, the Patriots will use Rodney Harrison in the box to help stop Eddie George and handle either of the Titans tight ends, Frank Wycheck or Erron Kinney. But as big a threat as McNair and his receivers represent, New England will look to stop George first while working to prevent the big play the Titans have so much success hitting. The Patriots will play conservatively on defense early, trying to make Tennessee convert third downs and drive the length of the field. But Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel will test McNair's health-related mobility, or perhaps lack thereof, with some timely blitzes to put heat on the pocket and see if he can escape and throw accurately.
The punters -- Craig Hentrich and Ken Walter -- will play a big role in the game, with the advantage leaning toward Hentrich. Walter's inconsistency will put pressure on the Patriots offense to move the ball out of its end before punting so that it can win the field position battle.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Patriots DBs vs. Titans WRs. New England led the NFL with 29 interceptions and allowed a 34.5 percent third down conversion rate while allowing very few big plays. The Titans have big, physical receivers who can get down the field and run after the catch. Three receivers -- Justin McCareins, Darren Bennett and Tyrone Calico -- all average more than 15 yards per catch while leading receiver Derrick Mason averaged 13.7 yards per catch on his 95 receptions and had eight grabs for 99 yards in the first meeting.
The Patriots have intercepted at least one pass in each of their 12 straight wins entering this game, including Ty Law's pick and 65-yard return for a touchdown against the Titans in October. The Patriots defensive backs have to prevent the big play and get the defense off the field on third down. The Law vs. Mason matchup will be one to watch especially close, although the Titans will take some shots at Tyrone Poole and will attack rookie nickel back Asante Samuel on third down.
Patriots DL Richard Seymour vs. Titans G Zach Piller. Piller is banged up and with the Patriots bringing Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest off the edge, tackle Brad Hopkins may not be able to help Piller handle the Patriots All-Pro defensive lineman. With Ted Washington requiring his share of double teams inside, Piller could face a tough day against Seymour, who finished with 80 tackles and 8 sacks.
Patriots LT Matt Light and RT Tom Ashworth vs. Titans DEs Jevon Kearse, Kevin Carter and Carlos Hall. Those three ends combined for 18 sacks on the season with Kearse picking up two in the earlier meeting. The Patriots tackles have been solid most of the season, but sometimes have trouble with quicker rushers like Kearse. If they do, the Patriots will use a tight end or a back to help out.
Patriots WR Troy Brown vs. Titans nickel backs Tony Beckham and Lamont Thompson. Since Brown returned to health with three weeks remaining in the season, he has been used primarily in the slot in three receiver sets. Of his 40 receptions, 13 and two of his four touchdowns came in the last three weeks after he missed four games with a leg injury. David Givens emerged in his absence and Brown returned to give defenses another receiver to worry about.
The Patriots reported no injuries, but it will be interesting to see how Mike Vrabel's sore arm responds. Vrabel is practicing this week, but took a helmet directly on the arm in the season finale vs. Buffalo.