By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — We’ve come to the annual part of the football schedule where the Patriots take a week to rest and relax before hosting a divisional round playoff game at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots earned that first-round playoff bye for the eighth straight season, which is a feat in and of itself.
You could actually make the case that the second half of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady run (from 2007 to the current day) has seen the Patriots as a more consistent and dominant team than the team that won three Super Bowls in four years from 2001-04. The Patriots earned the No. 1 seed just once (2003) in the first half of the run; they’ve earned the No. 1 seed six times since ’07.
Every single year, you can count on the Patriots hosting a divisional round game playoff game. When you look around the league at the other NFL powers, you can see that no other team can boast such a claim.
As such, that divisional round game has, to some, lost its “big event” status, because it’s basically just become a part of the schedule. And there’s no bigger opponent of the Patriots’ divisional round game than The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy.
Love him or hate him (and if you have the audacity to celebrate the career of the greatest quarterback to ever play, then the feeling is apparently mutual), Shaughnessy is still as prominent a voice in the Boston sports media as there is. And he’s successfully gotten the term “Tomato Can” to stick when describing Patriots’ opponents.
It’s a term he’s fond of using — really, quite fond — and it’s a certainty that we’ll be hearing it again after this weekend, when the Patriots learn which team they’ll be playing on Jan. 13. He’s already begun the banging of the drum, in fact.
The phrase is catchy, no doubt, but it’s not always accurate. For every game against the Tim Tebow-led Broncos or the Brock Osweiler-led Texans, there are five games against MVP quarterbacks and top defenses. The history is undeniable. The road to the Super Bowl is never easy; the Patriots have just shown a knack for making it look that way.
With that being established, here’s a scientific analysis of just how Tomato Canny the Patriots’ divisional round opponent will be next weekend.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
TOMATO CAN RATING: 2 out of 5
If you wanted to make the case for the Chiefs being a tomato can, you’d have a hard time. Waltzing into Gillette Stadium and soundly beating the Patriots in a nationally televised game on the night of a Super Bowl banner raising? That was a big boy win for Andy Reid and Alex Smith.
At the same time, you can’t completely get behind the legitimacy of a team led by Reid and Smith in the playoffs. Reid is 11-13 as a head coach in the playoffs, and he’s 1-3 with the Chiefs. Smith is 2-4 as a starter in the postseason and he, too, is 1-3 with the Chiefs.
Included in those three losses was a thoroughly unimpressive performance in the 2015 postseason at Gillette Stadium. Smith threw fifty passes that day, completing 29 of them but for just 246 yards. That’s a 4.92-yard average per attempt, which is historically bad. Reid also did nothing to dispel the notion that he lacks an understanding of how clocks work, as he sat back and allowed then-offensive coordinator Doug Pederson to run a 5:11 drive while trailing by 14 points late in the fourth quarter. In a shocking development, it proved to be an ineffective method of winning.
Yet while the questionable history of Reid and Smith remains at the forefront, the difference-maker this year is Kareem Hunt. When the rookie has been involved and effective, the Chiefs have won. Generally speaking, when the Chiefs have limited his touches, they have lost. Hunt, as you’ll surely remember, had a dynamite evening against the Patriots in Week 1, rushing for 148 yards and adding 98 more receiving yards, scoring three touchdowns in his NFL debut.
The Patriots’ defense has changed drastically since that night, so a complete repeat performance from Hunt is unlikely. But his presence gives the Chiefs a realistic chance to have some hope in this matchup.
The Chiefs also lost safety Eric Berry for the season that night, and they finished the season just one spot ahead of the Patriots in total defense, at 28th. The difference is that the Patriots managed to rank fifth in points allowed, while the Chiefs ranked 15th.
Also relevant: Kansas City ranked in the top 10 in interceptions, and it could just take one pick to throw Brady’s offense out of whack.
TOMATO CAN RATING: 4 out of 5
The Titans made the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, and in doing so they look awfully similar to a 99-cent offering from Tuttorosso.
The Titans ranked 17th in points allowed and 19th in points scored. They went 3-5 on the road, and one of those wins was an overtime victory … in Cleveland. They’re not at all playoff-ready, having somehow played just three playoff teams all year long. They did beat the Jaguars twice, but those wins came in Week 2 and then Week 17, when the Jaguars had no motivation to win. In the other two games against playoff opponents, the Titans lost 40-17 at Pittsburgh and by four points at home to the Rams.
With a playoff spot firmly in their grasp, the Titans also went on a three-game losing streak that started with losses against the Cardinals and 49ers. It wasn’t all that impressive.
Marcus Mariota threw just 13 touchdowns this season … and threw 15 picks. Likewise, not all that impressive. He was even worse on the road, throwing five touchdowns and 11 interceptions with a passer rating of 69.4 in seven road games.
The Titans just don’t look the part of a legitimate threat in the AFC. But they only get four instead of five tomato cans because if they make it to the divisional round, then that means they won a playoff game in Arrowhead. Doing that will at the very least raise some eyebrows as the Titans prepare for the Patriots … though Tennessee would still almost certainly enter as at least 12-point underdogs.
TOMATO CAN RATING: 5 out of 5
The entire football world celebrated the end of the Bills’ playoff drought — yay! — but, well, sorry. The party won’t last long.
The Bills average 18.9 points per game, dead last among the NFL’s 12 playoff teams. They allow 22.4 points per game, which also ranks dead last among the NFL’s 12 playoff teams. And that’s against everybody; against the Patriots? The Bills couldn’t score an offensive touchdown in 120 minutes of game time.
The Patriots went to Buffalo on Dec. 3 and won 23-3. The Bills visited Foxboro three weeks later; the Patriots won 37-16. The Patriots outgained the Bills 846-594, proving quite convincingly that the two teams exist on completely separate NFL tiers.
Now the Bills enter the playoffs likely without LeSean McCoy, who suffered an ankle injury in Week 17 after leading the Bills in rushing yards (1,138) and nearly leading the Bills in receiving yards (his 448 receiving yards were second only to Charles Clay’s 558 yards).
If some wacky, wild things happen in Jacksonville this weekend and the Bills are somehow able to earn the franchise’s first postseason victory since Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas beat Dan Marino in 1995, then the whole football world will likely again gaze in wonderment at these scrappy, upstart Bills. Some might even say they have a chance against the mighty Patriots, because “IT’S HARD TO BEAT A TEAM THREE TIMES IN A SPAN OF SEVEN WEEKS!” But, yeah, that’s not true. It would be pretty easy for the Patriots to beat the Bills once more.