James Harrison's sturdy presence on edge should show up versus Titans

Every Saturday, exploring New England Patriots hot topics in the form of a mailbag.

Luke, this is something Tedy Bruschi touched on this week, so let's start with his thoughts on James Harrison: "This is the type of game you bring him in for: to set the edge in the running game and then bull-rushing [Marcus] Mariota. So it's [getting] that offensive tackle back in his pocket. Those two things, I know are being stressed, and James Harrison can deliver those things. He'll make a difference." With such a focus on slowing down the Tennessee Titans' running game, I'd expect a sturdier front six or front seven, and Harrison immediately became one of the sturdiest options the Patriots have at the end of the line of scrimmage. I expect to see a lot of him Saturday night. On Thursday, he described his acclimation into the system after signing on Dec. 26 this way: "It’s a little bit better, but nowhere where it needs to be."

Russ and Alex, with the Patriots potentially having almost everyone available to them health-wise, projecting the inactives for this game is a challenge. Running back Rex Burkhead strongly hinted that he would play, so the only player I believe would be ruled out due to injury is running back Mike Gillislee (knee). So I'll start with Gillislee and then add OL Cole Croston, DT Ricky Jean Francois, LB David Harris, DE Geneo Grissom (a tough call based on his core special-teams value), WR Kenny Britt and WR Phillip Dorsett.

Adam, when Chris Hogan (shoulder) returned for that one game Dec. 11 against the Miami Dolphins, he played 55 of 61 offensive snaps. That reflects how he is viewed highly by the coaching staff and that once he is cleared, he'll be thrown right back into the top mix. He is traditionally in good condition. Meanwhile, Dorsett had dressed for that game against the Dolphins but didn't play. So I'd expect to see a lot of Hogan against the Titans, with only a small percentage of snaps missed.

James White told me he feels ready to go, and I'd expect to see him. Meanwhile, Burkhead strongly hinted he is playing, saying, "I'm just excited. ... Throughout the process, really kind of focused on this time, for these games. ... After the [knee] injury, you never know what is going to happen. So that's always in the back of your head. But when you get good news, it helps you to look forward to these games a little better." That would be a classic media misdirection if Burkhead doesn't play after saying that.

The Patriots practice outside almost all of the time, which is part of Bill Belichick's coaching philosophy, and so those potential conditions shouldn't affect them greatly. They've already been in them this season. But one also can make the case that a potential challenging forecast might actually favor the Titans, because it adds another variable that could lead to more turnovers. (The Patriots are 143-15 in the regular season since 2000 when they have a positive turnover differential.) In close-to-perfect weather, I think the Patriots would win convincingly.

I was at the stadium Friday night and the field was covered with a large tarp, as it had been raining all day and the conditions were forecast to continue into Saturday morning. If that surface is wet and then temperatures drop quickly during the game, it could make footing a challenge. These are the types of unknowns that contribute to the excitement of the "one-game season" that is the playoffs.

Megan, it's looking like longer odds for wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell to return this season (the deadline to decide on activating him from injured reserve to the roster is Wednesday), and Belichick has pointed out multiple times the considerable ground he has to make up. Maybe if there is a run of injuries in the game against the Titans, and the Patriots still advance, that opens the door. But right now, after he missed two practices this week, it seems to be trending in the other direction.