Quick–when was the last time the New England Patriots *didn’t* have a bye in the first round of the NFL playoffs? That would be 2009. That year, the Patriots didn’t fare well as the Baltimore Ravens beat them 33-14 at Gillette Stadium. With the current incarnation of the Ravens looking like a Super Bowl caliber team is this a harbinger of things to come? Maybe–but first the Patriots need to focus on a resurgent Tennessee Titans squad.
New England is playing in the first round due to their shocking loss to Miami at home in Week 17. The sports media is unanimous in calling it a massive upset but to really understand the significance some historical precident is necessary. Before the Dolphins 27-24 win, Tom Brady had *never* lost a game as a -14.5 or higher favorite. The New England franchise as a whole hadn’t lost as favorite of this magnitude since 1978 when they were upset by Baltimore (the Colts this time) as -17 home chalk.
The public perception of the Patriots is as a team that wins with a potent offense and first rate quarterback play. This season, they’ve won *despite* their offense and to some extent the play of the ageless Tom Brady. To be fair to the future Hall of Famer he doesn’t have much to work with. The offensive line is a mess due to multiple injuries. The Patriots lack depth in the receiving corps and Brady’s best target, Julian Edelman, has also been limited by injuries. Brady finished the regular season with 22 touchdown passes, his lowest total since his first year as the Patriots’ starting quarterback.
The reason that New England put up a 12-4 regular season record in the first place is their only real hope for postseason salvation: a downright nasty defense. The Pats’ stop unit led the league in total defense and scoring defense, was #2 in passing defense and #5 in rushing defense. Impressive numbers, but as has been the case with the Patriots all year their performance has to be viewed within the context of the team’s extremely weak schedule.
Tennessee is no joke with a capable if not exactly dynamic Ryan Tannehill under center. Tannehill revived not only the Titans’ offense but their entire season. He had plenty of help from running back Derrick Henry who was an absolute monster down the stretch en route to winning the NFL rushing title. They also got some strong performances from rookie receiver AJ Brown out of Ole Miss due in large part to the respect that opponents had to afford to Henry and the Titans rushing game. Tennessee might not have gaudy defensive numbers but they’re definitely solid on that side of the ball. The Titans went 7-3 SU/ATS after Tannehill took over and they’re a live dog here to not only get the ATS cover but to pull the outright upset.