After a season full of self-inflicted wounds and inconsistent play, the New England Patriots are stuck in unfamiliar territory: Wild Card Weekend.
Those three words make most of Patriots Nation shake in fear with memories of the last time their team competed in first-round playoff action. The year was 2009 and the opponent was the Baltimore Ravens.
Most fans remember Ray Rice ripping off an 83-yard TD run on the first offensive play of the game, essentially ending the contest and the Patriots’ playoff run before it got a chance to begin. While the defense had far from a great showing, the offense performed even worse. Led by Tom Brady’s abysmal 23-42 for 154 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions, the Patriots posed no threat to win that game whatsoever.
And ever since that 33-14 loss, New England has earned a first-round bye each and every year coming into this season. But in Week 17, with the second seed in the AFC hanging in the balance, the Pats crumbled and let a four-win Miami Dolphins team bully them up and down the field resulting in a 27-24 loss and an express ticket to the Wild Card round.
So why bring up the house of horrors that was the 2009 Wild Card game against Baltimore? Because taking a look at both situations, while a decade apart, have some eery similarities.
Both the Ravens of 2009 and the Titans of this year came into the playoffs absolutely rolling on the ground. Both teams, over their last 4 games, tallied over 100 yards rushing including a 200-plus yard performance the last game of the year.
And when it comes to the Patriots themselves, both the 2009 and 2019 regular seasons ended the same way. After letting up 100-yards rushing in 3 of their last 4 games, during the last game of the regular season, the Patriots suffered a loss to a non-playoff team.
There was the same talk around the league back then as there was now. “The Patriots Dynasty is on its last leg. They’re done. It’s over.”
That brings us to Saturday.
It’s impossible to talk about the Titans without bringing up the unanticipated success of Ryan Tannehill. Whether the quarterback was bitten by a radioactive spider during the offseason or took some super athlete serum a la Captain America, one thing is for certain: something has changed. This isn’t the same player we saw in Miami fumbling snaps and looking completely out of place.
The QB went on an absolute tear once he took over the starting role in Week 6. Finishing the season with a passer rating of 117.5, Tannehill not only led the league in the category but also finds himself in the record books. That 117.5 passer rating puts him third all-time, a feat that not even the most die-hard Ryan Tannehill fans ever thought would happen.
And not only does Tennessee have it going through the air, but they’re an absolute force on the ground as well. Derrick Henry finished the season leading the league in rushing with 1,540 yards. But just like the Patriots did against incompetent offenses early in the year, Henry feasted on anemic rush defenses with just over a third of his yards coming in three games against teams who couldn’t stop the run. The Texans, Chiefs, and Jaguars, who rank 25th, 26th, and 28th respectively in that category, were treated as Henry’s personal punching bags as he went well over 100 yards in each of those games.
But regardless of who has been on the other side of the field, Henry ended the season in beast mode. Going up over 100 yards in five of his last six games, the running back will clearly be a problem for this shaky Patriots rush defense.
Now it’s not all doom and gloom for New England, even though most Pats fans think they see the writing on the wall and this is not only the last game for Tom Brady in a Patriots uniform but also the end of the greatest Dynasty in all of professional sports.
There is still hope.
While the Titans are certainly bringing some intimidating stats into this game, New England also has some history they’re bringing to the table as well.
Head coach Bill Belichick is undefeated (11-0) against first time starting quarterbacks in the playoffs. He’s also a whopping 20-3 playing at home in Gillette Stadium during the playoffs. And speaking of records at Gillette, Ryan Tannehill has never been able to topple the Patriots at home, going 0-6 whenever he’s had to make the trek up to New England.
The weather for this game will almost certainly come into play as well. Saturday night is set to be a cold one with the temperature starting in the 30’s and getting colder as the night progresses. There’s also snow in the forecast, which could play into the Patriots’ hands as that would take Tannehill’s league-leading 9.6 yards per attempt and drop it just enough to where these Patriot corners won’t have to run the risk of giving up the long ball. An uncharacteristic kink in their armor that they’ve fallen victim to more than they’d like to admit recently.
Corner Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson will be looking to have a bounce-back game after getting undressed by the Dolphins last week. And with Titans receiver Austin Humphries officially ruled out for the game, that’s one less weapon the Pats secondary will have to worry about.
While the Titans offense will have to pivot to using more short passing, the Patriots live off that. So going against a team that’s ranked 24th in pass yards allowed per game, in bad weather while they’re down one of their top corners in Malcolm Butler means that Tom Brady should be able to move the ball through the air; something that he and this offense has struggled to do consistently the entire season. And if the Patriots can continue to get the ball rolling on the ground, as they have the last three games going up over 100 yards, that should open up the passing lanes even more for Tom Brady.
And who will Brady be throwing to? Look for rookie N’Keal Harry to play his biggest role to date in the offense Saturday night. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has had nothing but praise for the young receiver and seems willing and ready to fully unleash him on opposing defenses. And what better time to do so than at in front of a home crowd who is chomping at the bit to see the talented first-round draft pick finally have his big breakout performance.
Can N'Keal Harry take on an increased role, even in the playoffs?
Josh McDaniels: "Sure. … He's made the most of his opportunities. … At this time of the year, I don't really look at playoff experience as being important."
— Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis) December 30, 2019
It’s easy to get caught up in stats, analytics, and history when it comes to dissecting football games. People much smarter than myself have spent thousands of hours going over hundreds of tapes of dozens of games that each of these teams have played this year and past years which may factor into how this playoff matchup plays out.
But once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. A team that barely squeaks into the dance can beat the defending champs, run the table and become Super Bowl Champions. A quarterback can dip into his legendary bag of tricks and pull out a string of performances leading his team to the promised land once again. That’s the beauty of football. Stats are a great tool to see where each team is at, but at the end of the day, you have to look at the players on the field, the experience, and determination that each one of them possesses, and make your decision based on that.
And when you look at this game, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where Ryan Tannehill comes into Foxborough and beats a Bill Belichick lead defense who has played at an elite level for almost the entirety of the season. It’s tough to envision Tom Brady and company, no doubt hearing all the noise outside of their locker room about how this is finally the end of the Patriot Dynasty, not doing whatever is humanly possible for them to pull out a win. While the Patriots like to use the mantra “Ignore the noise”, we all know they don’t abide by it all the time. Giving this team any bulletin board material is the equivalent of tugging on Superman’s cape, and the entire football world has now tugged that cape completely off.
There’s something to be said for playoff pedigree and Tom Brady is unmatched by any player in the history of the league in that category. Sure, he’s had a season that is sub-par by his standards, but every warrior must learn to endure and overcome the adversities of life. Brady has had his fair share of hurdles this year, but ask anyone of his teammates and they’ll tell you he, and the rest of that team, has not given up at all.
How would Julian Edelman describe the mood in the locker room?
“Hungry,” he says. pic.twitter.com/iFjT07Qg7M
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) January 2, 2020
Someone must have ripped the “Q” section out of the Patriots dictionary because they don’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” And come Saturday night, they’ll be ready to show the NFL that they are indeed still here.
2020, and still here. #LFG pic.twitter.com/wfsCqibss1
— Tom Brady (@TomBrady) January 1, 2020
Titans 16 – Patriots 20