To the average football fan, playing against Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots is kind of a big deal in the NFL playoffs.
To nose tackle Austin Johnson, a Galloway Township native, and the rest of the Tennessee Titans, it’s just another game.
“They’re obviously a good team. They won it all last year and have been there plenty of times,” Johnson said in a phone interview Thursday. “But I feel like if we’re on our stuff and we’re just ready to go, I feel like it’s going to be a really good game, and we can come out with a victory.”
Few are that confident.
The Titans head into Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Patriots as 13.5-point underdogs. Game time is set for 8:15 p.m. on CBS and 97.3 FM.
Johnson, a 2012 St. Augustine Prep graduate, is set to start at defensive tackle for the Titans.
Johnson’s parents, Austin and Tammy, will head to New England for the game, he said. They’ve been to four of the Titans’ home games this season.
The fifth-seeded Titans are riding the momentum of a comeback 22-21 win in the wild card round at No. 4 Kansas City last Saturday in which they shut out the Chiefs 19-0 in the second half.
The Titans finished the regular season 9-7. The Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions, are the top seed and went 13-3 this season.
“We were underdogs last week and overcame it, and underdogs the week before and overcame it,” Johnson, 23, said. “It’s the same stuff, different day.”
In 16 games, including three starts, this season, Johnson made 24 tackles, including a sack. Last week, he made two tackles against the Chiefs.
“(This season) has flown by. It’s been a good year for me, but I’m obviously not comfortable where I’m at,” Johnson said. “I want to get better, reach different levels and be an all-around better player.”
Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has experience against the Brady-led Patriots in the playoffs. The legendary coach recently served as the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2004-2014, and lost to the Pats in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 23, 2005, 41-27.
LeBeau said to Titans beat writer Jim Wyatt on TitansOnline.com that the key is “not letting (Brady) read you like a book, which he is very adept at.”
“Whether you are pressuring or whether you are going coverage, if he knows where you are going, then he is going to be pretty effective,” LeBeau said.
Johnson echoed that philosophy.
“We just have to be disruptive, in his face and take him out of his comfort zone,” Johnson said. “We know that every week with any quarterback. If you sack the guy, he’s going to have a long day. We’re hopeful to get that accomplished.”
The 6-foot-4, 314-pound lineman started in three of the last four games of the season, including a 15-10 win over Jacksonville in the final game of the season. He was used more as a rotational player at the start of the season.
It’s a major improvement for the 2016 43rd overall pick out of Penn State, who was inactive in six of the first nine games of his rookie season last year.
“It’s magnificent, who doesn’t love starting?” Johnson said. “Going from being a rotational guy and to starting and being the first person out there to get a feel of the game, it helps to get that first series, get a feel of it and assess what you’ve got from the drive.
“I’m just happy to still be playing in January,” he added. “This is where the top teams meet each other, and I’m still happy to be playing.”