Las Vegas already likes the Patriots by 13 ½ points. Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe says that the Patriots will get a second bye week. The Patriots get to avoid the team that beat them 42-27 at Gillette Stadium in Week 1.
Super Bowl mojo. Bring it on.
Yes, of course, the Patriots could lose this coming Saturday night to the Tennessee Titans. We could all see a repeat of the unthinkable 2010 loss to the Jets in the Divisional round, when the top seeded Patriots fell at home to someone more famous for a butt fumble than good football (Mark Sanchez). This ESPN report of severe internal strife in the Patriot kingdom could be more of a distraction than the organizational figureheads will say or admit to. Maybe Logan Ryan, now a Tennessee cornerback, will be able to tell Mike Mularkey and his staff what they could never figure out on their own how to solve Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
But in the real world, to see the Patriots not advance to their seventh straight AFC Championship Game would take an upset of monumental proportions. It’s not like hitting last week’s Power Ball jackpot, but it’s not that far off. With the Wild Card games playing out, the only result the Patriots didn’t “get” was seeing last year’s Super Bowl foe, Atlanta, ousted by the Los Angeles Rams. A rematch of last year’s epic championship game is still a possibility. Otherwise, things broke nicely for the Patriots once again with regard to whom they will need to play to get to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis in early February.
Tennessee pulled off the upset of the playoffs on Saturday by knocking off perhaps the most dangerous team in the mind of Patriot Nation, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs continued their disastrous record at home in the playoffs by falling a point short, 22-21, in a game which featured Marcus Mariota throwing and completing a touchdown pass – to himself. The team that laid out the Patriots on opening night won’t be there to come back for seconds.
Had Buffalo won on Sunday at Jacksonville, the Bills would have come to Foxborough next weekend for a third date with the Patriots. But in a tight defensive struggle, the Jacksonville Jaguars ended the Bills’ wonderful playoff season with a 10-3 win at Everbank Field. The Jaguar win sent them to Pittsburgh next Sunday, and Tennessee to Foxborough for Saturday night.
Most NFL experts see the Patriots and Steelers as prohibitive favorites to meet two weeks from Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, a rematch of the 2016 game in the same venue.
The Patriots figure to be there. The Steelers, however, will have to do what the Patriots don’t need to do, that is to beat a team that beat them at home earlier in the season. Back on October 8, Jacksonville came to Heinz Field and beat the Steelers, 30-9. The Jags won thanks to two pick-sixes and two rushing touchdowns by rookie Leonard Fournette. It wasn’t because of quarterback Blake Bortles, which could prove decisive in the rematch next week.
But as Belichick will remind everyone, don’t look ahead. We’re on to Tennessee. Ask me about the Titans.
Belichick could be scared to death that the Titans will do to them what they did to the Chiefs. Or, he will make you think he feels that way. He will turn Mariota into the next Johnny Unitas, Derrick Henry into the next Jim Brown, and Delanie Walker into the next Jerry Rice. He will liken the Titan defense to the 1985 Bears, but if anyone asks about Ryan, Belichick will say “I can only comment on the players currently on the team.”
In the end, the Patriots still have to get things done on the field. However easier the path to Super Bowl LII might have been made with Baltimore and Kansas City losing in consecutive weeks, the Patriots still have to approach the Titans carefully and diligently. They can be confident, but not cocky.
The 2010 loss to the Jets is the only time the Patriots have lost in the Divisional round as the top playoff seed. Last year’s win over Houston is a better example of what could happen to the Patriots when a seemingly unloseable game stares at them in January in the Divisional round.
In that game, a 34-16 win by the Patriots, Dion Lewis became the first player in NFL history to register touchdowns by rushing, receiving and kickoff return in a postseason game. But Lewis also suffered two costly fumbles, enabling the Texans to hang with the Patriots into the second quarter. Brady finished 18 of 38 passing for 287 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw two interceptions and had a passer rating of only 68.6. Even though the Patriots won by 18 points, the game was closer than the final score indicated, the Texans’ defense played the Patriots tough, and the Patriots did not bring their “A” game to the table.
Less will be expected of the 2017 Titans than the 2016 Texans. Beyond Mariota, Henry and Walker, Tennessee doesn’t have much skill on offense. Other than Ryan, the only defensive player on Tennessee you may have heard of is Brian Orakpo, a former Redskin Pro Bowl linebacker who used to be in TV commercials.
Meanwhile, the Patriots will likely get some skill position players back. James White, Rex Burkhead and Chris Hogan could suit up for this game. Kyle Van Noy, Alan Branch and newcomer James Harrison will bolster the defense. If the Patriots bear down and treat this game seriously, a win should follow. The Titans don’t have the material to match up with the Patriots, even if the Patriots bring their “B” game.
The only other major concern for the Patriots, barring a flat performance or a “titanic” upset, is injuries. Rob Gronkowski won’t be protected in the playoffs like he was last week against the Jets. Anything can happen at any time. You don’t plan on them, but they happen. A key injury to a key Patriot could turn the game.
Still, it’s hard to think that the Patriots won’t be in the conference title game once again on January 21. Win Saturday night, watch Pittsburgh and Jacksonville kill each other on Sunday, and prepare to try and make it to their second straight Super Bowl and third in the last four seasons, exactly like 2001-04.
Well, almost exactly. They won all three of those Super Bowls. This one is still off in the distance. But it is slowly starting to appear on the horizon.
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