How Close Are the Titans to the Patriots?
The 2016 season is well behind us and the New England Patriots established themselves as the definitive gold standard of the NFL yet again. Before diving in to free agency, draft prospect scouting reports, next year’s schedule, etc. etc., let’s take a look back and see how the Tennessee Titans stack up against the Super Bowl champions.
The biggest asset for the 2016 Patriots was arguably the gigantic, collective chip on their shoulders. Roger Goodell dropped the hammer after Deflategate, docking draft picks and suspending Tom Brady for the first four games of the season. It’s safe to say the team was out for blood and vengeance. That would be hard for any time to replicate, and really, what reason would any other team have for such a perceived sleight? The Titans seem to have the mental makeup to be a tough, disciplined squad. But, they need to realize that potential and show the focus it takes to make a lengthy run into the NFL playoffs. They won’t win as long as they’re squandering games to Indianapolis and Jacksonville.
It’s worth noting that the AFC East wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row last year. Sure, the Miami Dolphins made the playoffs, but were they a credible, threatening six seed? No. The Buffalo Bills were above average in spots, but consistently mediocre. The New York Jets were a dumpster fire. This can’t be leveraged too much in the discussion, though – as the Titans play in a division that’s just as bad, if not worse, heading into 2017.
The one clear advantage the Titans have in this comparison is the offensive line. It may be the best in the NFL, but among the AFC, it definitely gets the nod. Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin should prove to be bookends for the next decade. The offensive line of the Patriots always seems underrated. It played well enough to win a Super Bowl, but in terms of talent, it doesn’t stack up to the Titans.
When it comes to wide receiver, it’s the age-old question: are Brady’s receivers good or does Brady make mediocre receivers better? Regardless, if you look at the best of each bunch, you’re measuring Julian Edelman against Rishard Matthews. While Matthews was a pleasant surprise in 2016, there’s no way he’s grading higher than Edelman. But, overall, these two units aren’t as far off as one would imagine. Is Chris Hogan really that much better than Tajae Sharpe? How does Malcolm Mitchell factor into the debate?
Tight end isn’t a position of great concern for either team. Even with Rob Gronkowski’s nagging injuries, the Patriots still have Martellus Bennett on the roster (for now). While Delanie Walker isn’t getting any younger, he’s still a top-five tight end in the NFL, maybe higher. Still if Gronk is healthy, he is the best tight end in the league.
Each running back unit is specifically carved out for the team’s offensive philosophy – one on one, talent for talent, DeMarco Murray is the best of the bunch, but the Patriots have a unique stable of backs that have proven to be serviceable role players. James White has a serious gripe with not being named MVP of the Super Bowl.
Do I really need to mention that Brady is better than Marcus Mariota? Thought so – moving on.
Believe it or not, it’s the defense that exposes the biggest difference between these two teams. Matt Patricia’s defenses always seem to be opportunistic. Maybe they don’t completely shut down opposing offenses, but they’re keen to make a critical play. In Super Bowl 51, the defense pressured Matt Ryan into fumbling the ball in a momentum-swinging play. The Titans just couldn’t seem to cash in enough moments like that last season. Dick LeBeau’s squad is improving, but it needs some key pieces in the secondary, and it needs to create more big plays on defense.
Special teams are almost always exceptional in New England. Field position is rarely an issue with this team, whereas the Titans lack any real spark in that department. As far as coaching goes, well, let’s just say they won’t be renaming the Lombardi Trophy after Mike Mularkey any time soon. That’s not to discredit what he’s done in Nashville. On the contrary, he’s proven to be the guy for the job. But, there’s quite a way to go before achieving Bill Belichick’s level of pedigree.
As for the front office, Jon Robinson seems to be a real up-and-comer. His free agent additions and guidance through the draft were both huge successes. He managed to pull off a ridiculous trade with the Los Angeles Rams to move out of the number two slot in last year’s draft. Robinson also traded a 4th round draft pick for the AFC’s leading rusher (Murray). I’d say that’s an okay job.
The Titans may be closer to the Atlanta Falcons than they are to the Patriots, but given the overall weakness of the AFC, that Robinson’s philosophy and Mularkey’s system are now firmly in place and stable, and the Titans are closer to a Super Bowl than people may realize.