Folks are confident about the New England Patriots’ chances this weekend in the AFC divisional round against the Tennessee Titans — as they should be.
Las Vegas has the Patriots currently sitting as a two-touchdown favorite, with roughly 70 percent of the bets coming in on the AFC East champs.
The Patriots have won their last six playoff openers and have gone 5-1 against the spread in those contests despite being at least 9.5-point favorites in three of those games. If the Patriots don’t win Saturday night, it will be the most surprising outcome of the 2017 NFL season.
All of that being said, New England has slipped up at home in the playoffs before. The Patriots have lost three home playoff games with Tom Brady under center. There was the 2009 wild-card round against the Baltimore Ravens, the 2011 divisional round against the New York Jets and the 2012 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.
How did those teams do it, and what can Tennessee learn as it tries to pull off another postseason miracle? Here’s a simple nine-point plan to avoid becoming the Patriots’ latest tomato can.
BE THE BALTIMORE RAVENS
The Ravens have two of the three road wins against the Patriots. The Titans, unfortunately for them, aren’t the Ravens. So, yeah. Not off to a great start here.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Pretty simple, right? You probably aren’t surprised to hear the Patriots’ three home playoff losses with Brady under center came in games that New England lost the turnover battle. In those three losses, the Patriots have a minus-6 turnover differential.
Another problem for Tennessee, though: The Titans’ turnover margin was an uninspiring minus-4 in the regular season, tied for 23rd in the NFL.
FLIP THE FIELD
Win the turnover battle, and you’ll probably win the field position battle, too. The Patriots — like any team — are up against it when trying to defend a short field.
In 2009, Ray Rice’s 83-yard touchdown run is the lasting image, but through turnovers and special teams, Baltimore started four drives in Patriots territory — in the first quarter alone (at the 17, 42, 25 and 9). The Ravens jumped out to a 24-0 lead, and not even Brady could erase that deficit … on that day, at least.
The next year, New York started three possessions inside New England territory.
In the 2009 game, Baltimore’s average drive start was on its own 43-yard line; the Jets started their drives on average at their own 37. And in all three of New England’s losses, the opposing team started at least one drive inside Patriots territory.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Titans started 20 drives inside their opponent’s 49-yard line during the regular season. Not bad, right? Well, the Patriots led the league by allowing the fewest drives to start inside their own territory (five).
BEAT UP TOM BRADY
Again, simple and goes for every team and quarterback. Brady has been sacked a total of 22 times in his nine playoff losses and just 39 times total in 25 wins.
In the three home playoff losses, Brady has been sacked a total of eight times. Three of those came in the first loss to Baltimore, and five of them came against the Jets. Coincidentally, Brady wasn’t sacked in the 2013 loss to the Ravens.
The Titans ranked tied for fifth with 43 sacks.
SCORE THE FIRST TOUCHDOWN
The Patriots actually scored first in two of those three losses, but the opposition scored the first touchdown in each game. It’s even more important for a team like the Titans to score the first touchdown, too. They’re going to want to run the ball, and if they’re down two scores at the end of the first quarter, they might as well start making vacation arrangements.
LEARN FROM THE FIRST TIME
All three of the Patriots’ home playoff losses came to teams they played in the regular season. The Titans didn’t play the Patriots this season — that’s bad news for them.
Worse news for them:
RUN IT, RUN IT, RUN IT
Here are the Patriots’ opponents’ running stats for those three respective games:
Baltimore, 2009: 52 carries, 234 yards
New York, 2010: 29 carries, 120 yards
Baltimore, 2012: 33 carries, 121 yards
Totals: 114 carries, 475 yards (4.2 yards per carry)
This might be the Titans’ best chance. They ranked ninth in yards per carry (although they were much worse on the road), while the Patriots allowed the second-most yards per carry. The only thing more shocking than the Titans winning this game would be them somehow doing so without a big day on the ground.
The Titans have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, and they’ve got some big dudes who might be able to push around a smaller New England front seven. Bill Belichick, of course, knows that and probably will do all he can to make sure it’s Marcus Mariota — not Derrick Henry — who beats him.
BIG PLAYS HELP
Everyone remembers Rice’s 83-yard, crowd-silencing scamper. The Titans certainly have a running back in Henry who’s capable of hitting a home run, as he proved this season.
PRAY (MAYBE KIND OF A LOT, TOO?)
Do all that, and the Titans might — might — have a chance to beat the Patriots. There’s a reason the Patriots are 17-3 in home playoff games with Brady at the helm, and it’s unlikely the Titans will become the “4” in 17-4.
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