By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As the Patriots enter the postseason, there’s a distinct lack of the usual confidence that normally fills the region every year around this time. Instead of sizing up the NFC competition for Super Bowl LIV in Miami, most football fans are left wondering if this year’s team — a team that was once 8-0 and had the potential to make history — will even reach the divisional round. The conference championship, long believed to be the official start of the football season in New England, remains an even longer shot.
Losing a gotta-have-it game at home against the Miami Dolphins to kick away the No. 2 seed and its accompanying first-round playoff bye tends to have that effect.
The fact that the Titans will enter Saturday night’s game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL surely does not do much to assuage the fears of folks who have watched the Patriots head in the opposite direction over the past calendar month.
And, to be sure, the Titans represent a very real challenge for a Patriots team that had no plans of playing this weekend. If the Patriots take the field and replicate their performance from the Miami loss, their season will assuredly come to a crashing halt on wild-card weekend, a fate the team has avoided for nearly a full decade.
That part of the equation cannot be known. But for the sake of seeing where and how the Patriots and Titans stack up, let’s run through some numbers and recent history to get a better feel for what awaits us all on Saturday evening.
When the Patriots were racking up wins and boasting a historically dominant defense, the knock on them was that they hadn’t faced any teams that were actually any good. This critique was fair. Once the Patriots entered the difficult portion of their schedule in Week 8, they went 5-4 to close out the year.
The Titans had pretty much the opposite kind of season. They started out 2-4, and the playoffs had to have been the farthest thing from anybody’s mind in Nashville. It bottomed out when they got shut out in a 16-0 loss at Denver. A change at quarterback from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill the following week appeared to have been a desperation move by Mike Vrabel, but it ended up being a season-saver. The Titans went 7-3 to close out the year and earn the second wild-card spot in the AFC playoffs.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
STRENGTH OF VICTORY
The Patriots faced teams that ultimately made the playoffs six times in 2019. They went 3-3, beating the Bills twice and winning at Philadelphia, while losing at home against Kansas City and on the road against Baltimore and Houston.
The Titans faced teams that ultimately made the playoffs five times in 2019. They went 2-3, beating a Texans team full of backups in Week 17 and beating the Chiefs in Patrick Mahomes’ first game back from a dislocated kneecap. They lost to the Bills, they lost to the Texans (when they played with their starters), and they lost to the Saints.
In terms of common opponents, the Patriots went 3-2 against Cleveland, Buffalo, Kansas City and Houston. The Titans also went 3-2 against those same teams.
Yards Per Game
The numbers for Tennessee are a bit misleading. The Titans averaged 16.3 points and 290.5 yards per game with Mariota as the starter for six weeks. Since then, they’ve averaged 30.4 points and 406.2 yards per game over the last 10 games. Had the Titans done that over the course of 16 games, they’d have ranked third in yards and second in points. They of course did not post those numbers over a full 16 games, but the 10-game run has nevertheless been impressive.
Meanwhile the Patriots’ offense simply is what it is. It’s not particularly potent, and it’s been trending southward for some time. In Weeks 1-9, the Patriots averaged 366.7 yards and 26.3 points per game. (The defense and special teams actually scored six touchdowns during that streak, though, so the offense really put up 21.7 points per game.) In the seven games after their bye, the Patriots averaged 337.6 yards and 21.4 points per game.
On the positive side, the Patriots did put up 24 points and gain 414 yards of offense against a top-level Buffalo defense in a playoff-like game in Week 16. On the negative side, the Patriots sandwiched that game with underwhelming performances against Cincinnati and Miami, teams carrying two of the absolute worst defenses in the NFL.
Breaking it down further, the Titans rank third in rushing, both in yards per game and yards per attempt. The Patriots rank 18th in rushing yards per game and they rank 25th in rushing yards per attempt. Considering the Patriots have had some hiccups defensively in stopping the run against Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Washington and Buffalo, the Titans will likely look to use Derrick Henry to exploit that potential vulnerability.
In the passing game, the Titans oddly rank 21st in passing yards per game but first in passing yards per attempt, at a clean 8.0. That’s due to Tannehill averaging 9.6 yards per attempt, a full yard better than anybody else in the NFL. The Patriots rank eighth in passing yards per game but 18th in passing yards per attempt, as throwaways to avoid sacks have become a staple of Brady’s game this season.
For as much as the offensive comparison is a mismatch for Tennessee, the defense is an even bigger one in New England’s favor. While the final showing of the year was a disastrous one, the Patriots still finished miles ahead of the competition in so many defensive statistical categories.
The Patriots’ defense finished:
–First in yards allowed per game (275.9)
–First in yards allowed per play (4.7)
–First in points allowed per game (14.1)
–Second in passing yards allowed per game (180.4)
–Second in passing yards allowed per play (5.4)
–Sixth in rushing yards allowed per game (95.5)
–14th in rushing yards allowed per play (4.2)
–First in interceptions (25, five more than any other team)
–Tied for seventh in sacks (47)
–First in interception rate (4.66%)
–Sixth in sack rate (8.77%)
–First in first downs allowed per game (16.3)
–First in third-down defense (75.9%)
–Sixth in fourth-down defense (63.64%)
–Fourth in red-zone defense (51.72%)
Here’s where the Titans rank in those same categories:
–Tied for eighth
The mismatch is obvious. But there’s still a significant question as to whether it will actually matter.
The Patriots failed to capitalize against some of the NFL’s weakest defenses, particularly late in the year. That included an unimpressive road effort in Cincinnati, a much-too-late arrival in Houston, and some severe stumbles at home against Miami, Kansas City and the Giants. Tom Brady finished the year with his fewest TD passes (24) since 2006, tying for his second-lowest total in a full season starter and giving him four fewer TD passes than he threw in just 12 games in 2016.
So, while the Titans’ defense figures to be a major hindrance to their Super Bowl chances, it remains anybody’s guess whether or not Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady will be able to actually take advantage.
Here’s one you might not have expected: Despite shuffling kickers multiple times throughout the season, the Patriots have a much better field goal situation than their first postseason opponent.
That’s because the Titans have gone through three kickers, and none have been particularly efficient. The trio of Cody Parkey, Ryan Succop and Cairo Santos combined to successfully kick just eight of their 18 field goals this year. That 44.4 percent success rate ranks dead last in the NFL … by a lot. The Jets have the second-worst rate at 67.9 percent — or 23.5 percent better than Tennessee.
That disaster has led to the Titans signing 25-year-old Greg Jospeh, who was 17-for-20 on field goals and 25-for-29 on PATs in 2018 for Cleveland. This year in two games with Tennessee, he hasn’t had an opportunity to kick a field goal yet, but he’s 9-for-9 on PATs. Perhaps he is the stabilizing force that Tennessee desperately needed, but he nevertheless is a question mark heading into Saturday.
For the Patriots, two of Nick Folk’s three missed field goals came in a driving rain storm against Dallas, and he successfully drilled a 51-yard attempt in Week 16 vs. Buffalo in a high-pressure situation. The Patriots don’t have the luxury of employing Stephen Gostkowski this postseason, but the team’s confidence level in the kicker has to be about as high as it’s been all year.
In the punting game, don’t be surprised to see a battle of field position play out. The Titans rank first in the NFL in punts inside the 20, with 37. The Patriots have just one fewer, ranking second in the NFL. The Jake Bailey-Brett Kern battle may not give the broadcast a ratings boost, but it’ll certainly keep Bill Belichick excited.
Patriots, Sony Michel: 912 yards, 7 TDs
Titans, Derrick Henry: 1,540 yards, 16 TDs
Patriots, Julian Edelman: 100 receptions, 1,117 yards, 6 TDs
Titans, A.J. Brown: 52 receptions, 1,051 yards, 8 TDs
Patriots, Tom Brady: 60.8%, 4,057 yards, 24 TDs, 8 INTs
Titans, Ryan Tannehill: 70.3%, 2,742 yards, 22 TDs, 6 INTs
Patriots, Stephon Gilmore: 6
Titans, Kevin Byard: 5
Patriots, Jamie Collins: 7.0
Titans, Harold Landry: 9.0
Bill Belichick: 42 games (31-11 record)
Tom Brady: 40 starts (30-10 record)
Mike Vrabel: 0 games (20 games as player, 15-5 record)
Ryan Tannehill: 0 games
Having experience doesn’t allow teams or players to win playoff games simply by showing up to the field. That much is well known. But if you were forced to choose, you’d probably prefer to enter a playoff game carrying a roster loaded with postseason and Super Bowl experience over a roster that has precious little of it.
It’s funny. One team can end the season going 6-4, including a critical division win in Week 16, and appear to be fizzling out. Another team can finish the year going 7-3, including a critical division loss in Week 15 and a blown 14-0 lead in Week 16, and assume the role of underdog/darling for the postseason.
That of course has more to do with expectations than anything else, and the unexpected surge from Ryan Tannehill. There’s also a thorough body of work with regard to evaluating the Patriots as either a legitimate championship contender or merely one of the postseason pack. This season, even the most ardent and tattooed Patriots fan has to be feeling as though the latter will be the case.
And, who knows, perhaps the Titans will waltz into Foxboro without intimidation and spoil the Lombardi dreams of New England on a night when the Patriots never expected to even be playing. It’s the NFL, and last weekend’s face-plant against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins proved that truly anything can happen, even when the Patriots are playing at home.
At the same time, for as much as the conversation this week will center on the hot streak of the Titans … don’t forget that five of those seven wins came against non-playoff teams, and one came against a playoff team that was resting its most important starters. In a potential AFC South title game, the Titans lost at home to Houston, falling behind 21-14 early in the fourth quarter and then 24-14 with 3:31 to play. The game ended with Tannehill getting sacked and then spiking the football with no time left.
A week later, the Titans opened up a 14-0 lead at home over the Saints … before watching Drew Brees and Co. methodically turn that 14-0 deficit into a 24-14 New Orleans lead. Twice the Titans cut that lead to three points, and twice the Titans’ defense allowed touchdown drives by New Orleans.
To the Titans’ credit, they were able to show up in Week 17 at Houston, where Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Kenny Stills all did not play. But for as deflating as the Patriots’ season finale was, the Titans were in that same spot just two weeks ago.
All of that is to say … for every reason to feel good about either team, there’s a reason to feel bad about either team. On paper, it should be a thoroughly interesting matchup. We’ll find out Saturday night if it actually follows the script.