The New England Patriots are in somewhat unfamiliar territory as they’ll play during Wild Card Weekend for the first time in a decade when they host the Tennessee Titans. Kickoff is set for 8:15 EST on Saturday, January 4 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The game will be broadcast nationally on CBS.
Oddsmakers list the Patriots as 4.5-point home favorites with an over/under of 43.5 points. Click here to take a look at all of the NFL betting odds for Wild Card Weekend.
The Titans earned the final playoff spot in the AFC, outlasting several teams fighting over it throughout December. Of course, Tennessee lost two of their last three games to close out the season, winning the spot almost by default. In fact, the Titans needed Houston to sit several key starters in Week 17 to help them get the win that clinched the playoff spot.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to say that Tennessee wasn’t deserving based on their play the second half of the season. The Titans began the season 2-4 and looked dead in the water. But a change at quarterback sparked a run of six wins in seven games, helping the Titans finish 9-7 for the fourth consecutive season and reach the playoffs for the second time in the last three seasons.
As for the Patriots, the joy of winning their 11th straight AFC East title has been overshadowed by an embarrassing Week 17 loss to the Dolphins that prevented New England from securing a first-round bye. The reigning Super Bowl champions will now play in the Wild Card Round for the first time since a 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the 2009 season.
That loss to the Dolphins was also New England’s third in their last five games. It was a rare late-season stumble for the Patriots, especially since they didn’t clinch the AFC East until Week 16 and weren’t resting any starters in Week 17. Despite their 12-4 season, which is actually an improvement over last year’s 11-5 regular-season record, the Patriots were a modest 3-3 against playoff teams this year.
This will actually be the second time in the last three years that the Patriots and Titans meet in the playoffs. After Tennessee knocked off Kansas City in the Wild Card Round two years ago, the Titans traveled to New England in the Divisional Round, only to lose 35-14. However, that was before longtime Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel took over as Tennessee’s head coach. Under Vrabel, the Titans dismantled the Patriots 34-10 during the 2018 regular season, so perhaps Vrabel knows a thing or two about how to beat his old coach Bill Belichick.
I know there’s a lot of skepticism around the Patriots these days. But this is still Belichick and Tom Brady in the playoffs, so be wary when predicting their demise. They might struggle in the later rounds, but I think the Patriots will come out with something to prove after last week’s loss. Keep in mind that New England is 20-3 in home playoff games under Belichick, including 10 wins in a row. I think the Patriots find a way to win by a touchdown and cover.
To be fair, the Titans have a lot of traits of a team that can succeed in the playoffs. Defensively, they gave up less than 21 points per game this season, so they’re going to hang around in most games. More importantly, they had the NFL’s leading rusher in Derrick Henry, who rushed for over 1,500 yards this year while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Teams that can run the ball effectively tend to have a chance to win games in January. They were also 7-3 after Ryan Tannehill took over as the starting quarterback, making their 9-7 record a little misleading.
However, I think the Patriots have answers for the questions Tennessee will pose. It starts with New England’s run defense. The Patriots allowed a league-best 14 points per game in 2019. More importantly, they were stout against the run all season. Even in losses to the Texans and Chiefs late in the season, the New England defense was able to stifle the run. That won’t be easy against Henry, who averaged close to 150 yards per game over his final six games. However, I don’t think Henry will be able to run circles around the New England defense.
Keep in mind that Belichick excels at taking away a team’s biggest strength. One way or another, the Patriots are likely to slow down Henry and force Tannehill to beat them with his arm. Tannehill has looked good and posted impressive numbers over his 10 starts. But part of that is because he’s been a supplementary piece to Henry and the rushing attack. If the Patriots manage to slow down Henry, it could be another story. Also, the quarterbacks that tend to trouble New England’s defense are mobile quarterbacks who frequently make plays with their legs. That’s not a description that necessarily fits Tannehill.
In a weird way, Brady might be the X-factor in this game. His numbers this season are a far cry from his career averages. Even compared to last season, there’s been a considerable drop-off, especially late in the year. But even in an offense that’s void of big-play threats, Brady still threw for over 4,000 yards this season. With Julian Edelman and James White, he can still dink and dunk with the best of them and frustrate a Tennessee defense that somehow got worse the second half of the season after Tannehill took over at quarterback. The Titans gave up at least 20 points in eight of their last 10 games, making them solid but largely unspectacular defensively.
All things considered, it’s still hard to bet against Brady and Belichick in a home playoff game. I expect the Titans to give the Patriots a fight, but the New England dynasty isn’t going to end with a home game against Tennessee. I think the New England defense gives Brady enough help for the Patriots to cover the 4.5-point spread and advance to the next round.