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New England Patriots’ red-zone struggles could invite an upset at Tennessee

FOXBOROUGH — Life has been good in New England. 

No running backs? Cordarrelle Patterson says no problem.

No Gronk? Special teams and Josh Gordon will pick up the slack.

A future Hall of Fame quarterback comes to town desperate for a win? The Pats sent him packing with single-game season lows in points and passing yards.

Can’t score touchdowns in the red zone? Well, at least they’re winning.

New England’s red-zone performance has been its only consistent on-field blemish since a season-changing win over Kansas City in Week 6. Against the Bears, Bills and Packers, the Patriots have scored touchdowns on barely half of their offensive possessions that reach the 20-yard line. That percentage ranks well inside the bottom half of the league.

Defensively, it’s even worse. The 20-yard line has served essentially as a green light for opponents marching toward the end zone over the last three weeks. New England’s surrendered touchdowns on a whopping 86 percent of opposing red-zone trips, good for third-worst in the league. One of the two teams below the Pats — Cleveland — sits at 100.

And at the top of season-long rankings rest the Tennessee Titans, proud owners of the league’s toughest red-zone defense. 

“They’re very well-coordinated, they play very disciplined, good techniques, good fundamentals, they make you work for every yard, they don’t get many penalties,” Bill Belichick said Wednesday. “So, if you can’t go out there and move the ball against them, then you’re not going to move it. If you’re waiting for them to screw up and give you an easy play or a bunch of penalty yardage or stuff like that, you could be waiting a long time.”

This years, the Titans have yielded touchdowns less than a third of the drives they’ve allowed inside their 20, a mark far and away better than second-ranked Minnesota. Last Monday night, the Cowboys crossed the goal line twice on five red-zone trips versus Tennessee, one score worse than how the Patriots fared in as many attempts against Green Bay. New England’s problems stemmed mostly from questionable play-calling and the absence of a running back effective in short yardage.

The Pats first went four-and-out from the 1-yardline in the third quarter, then needed three tries from the same spot before James White eventually punched in his second rushing touchdown. 

Provided Sony Michel returns Sunday as expected, the Pats should receive a boost to their red-zone attack. If Rob Gronkowski joins him in jumping off the injury report, that’ll make two. Still, there’s more work to be done.

Since Week 6, Tom Brady has completed eight of 19 passes for three touchdowns and taken two sacks. The passing offense, largely revived by the arrivals of Gordon and Julian Edelman, is still a struggle inside the 20-yard line.

“It starts with practice. We’ve got to go out, and we have to have a good week of practice. Take everything from the classroom and bring it to the grass,” Julian Edelman said. “Execute in practice (and it) allows you to sleep the night before the game.”

On the other side of the ball, the game-plan focus should be simple: contain Marcus Mariota. The mobile Mariota has thrown just five touchdown passes this seasons, and his second and third-best receivers are hurt. In a similar scenario three weeks ago, Mitchel Trubisky basically only managed to put Chicago in the end zone against New England with his legs.

Titans wideouts Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe both missed Thursday’s practice, after Taylor was absent Wednesday with a foot injury. If Stephon Gilmore erases Corey Davis, Tennessee’s No. 1 receiving option, Mariota will essentially be down to running back Dion Lewis.

Lewis, of course, is dangerous, as the Patriots know. He’ll inevitably break tackles, perhaps a pair of ankles and pick up first downs. What New England’s defense cannot allow Lewis to do is convert inside the 20-yard line and keep Sunday close.

Otherwise, the Titans may convert the Music City home into Upset City and send the Pats home singing the blues.

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