Well that is definitely not how anyone drew it up for the Patriots. Going into the week it seemed almost a given that New England, a team known for playing their best when it matters most later in the season, would win a game against the Dolphins at home. After all, the Pats had defeated the Fins 43-0 in their first meeting and that was in Miami. However, that victory did not come to fruition and thus a first-round bye for a mind-boggling 10th straight season slipped through their fingertips.
Despite all the negatives from that game, and the fact the Patriots finished 4-5 in their last nine games, there is still reason to be positive about this week’s game. After all, Tom Brady has always played his best in the playoffs and New England still has the greatest coach of all-time roaming the sidelines in a home game. The situation may not be ideal, but you can only play the cards you’re dealt and for all the negativity, Belichick and company finished 12-4 and have a home playoff game, and another division title. Any team in the league, other than the one in Foxborough, would take that season no questions asked. Going forward the Patriots will be doubted by most, but in the playoffs anything can happen.
Here is what’s happening as the playoffs get started:
Much has been made about the Patriots not having a bye this year, and for good reason. The stats and history don’t shed positive light on their chances without the bye. The Pats have never won a Super Bowl when they didn’t have a bye. Taking it a step further, since 1975, 77 percent of the Super Bowl champions were top-two seeds, meaning that historically, a non-top seed wins it all less than a quarter of the time.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Titans, their season has really been a tale of two stories. The first six weeks of the season, they had Marcus Mariota under center and ended up 2-4 with a sputtering offense that scored just 16.3 points per game in that span. However, the first game in that span they scored 43 against the Browns and if you take away that one outburst, their scoring average in the next five games with Mariota was just 11 points per game.
Fortunately, after that Ryan Tannehill was inserted as the starter and then everything changed. In the those10 games, the Titans went 7-3 and their offense found their groove exploding for an average of 30.4 points per game. They also scored at least 20 points in every one of those games, something they only did twice in the six games with Mariota at quarterback.
Although Tannehill has been a revelation at the quarterback spot, the best weapon the Titans have is also the top rusher in the NFL. Derrick Henry has been dominant across the board leading the NFL in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns, while being fifth in yards per carry. Henry is a rare breed as he is a massive back, checking in at 6’3’’ and 247 pounds. His best attribute is his ability to run through tacklers and deliver punishing blows at contact. Most people assume that helps the most in between the tackles, but it makes a massive difference when bouncing to the outside where most defensive backs are significantly smaller and usually less willing or able to make a tackle on the edge against a back like Henry.
Much has been made about the Titans ties to the Patriots because their decision-maker, Jon Robinson, is a former New England front office staffer. Robinson also hired former Pats legend Mike Vrabel to be his head coach, but the ties go even deeper than that with Dion Lewis, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, and Cody Hollister. They also have Adam Humphries whom the Patriots attempted to try to lure away from his commitment to the Titans in the offseason. Despite some of those bigger names, very few of them are making an impact right now for the Titans. Malcolm Butler is on injured reserve, Cody Hollister has just two catches all year, Adam Humphries has been injured for a while and doesn’t appear likely to play Saturday and Dion Lewis doesn’t play much anymore. The one exception is that Logan Ryan has been outstanding in the slot and he figures to have a big impact in this game battling against old teammate Julian Edelman with likely help over the top.
Prediction: Titans 20, Patriots 13
The Patriots have been tough to gauge all year. In week 16 they put up some solid offensive numbers against one of the best defenses in the league, but then followed that up with a clunker against one of the worst defenses. Throw in the fact the passing defense and play-calling have been questionable and inconsistent of late and no one knows what the expect on Saturday. On the other side, the Titans have been playing their best football of late and Ryan Tannehill has been a well above-average quarterback since he took over and I think that will make the difference here. Derrick Henry is a stud, and the forecast shows rain, something that will make it even tougher to tackle him. A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith will be the difference in the passing game, while the Patriots will struggle to run the ball, and have been wildly inconsistent passing the ball. It comes down to getting a late stop and score, and the Pats season will end against the upstart Titans at Gillette.
-David Albiani is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @david_albiani