Though NFL observers have been anticipating the end of the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era for years, it never felt more imminent than after last week’s shocking home loss to a Miami Dolphins team that recently suffered back-to-back losses to the Jets and the Giants.
The debacle dropped New England from a No. 2 seed enjoying extra rest and home-field advantage in the divisional round to a No. 3 seed tasked with surviving wild-card weekend before having to potentially win road games against hard-finishing Kansas City and Baltimore just to reach the Super Bowl.
One step at a time. Let’s see how the Patriots match up with the Tennessee Titans in Game 2 of Saturday’s AFC playoff doubleheader:
— New England (-5) vs. Tennessee (8:15 p.m., CBS)
Tennessee: No. 12 offense, No. 21 defense, No. 23 schedule, plus-6 turnover margin
New England: No. 15 offense, No. 1 defense, No. 30 schedule, plus-21 turnover margin
A few red flags for the Patriots. They faced a very weak schedule, according to the market-respected rankings of Jeff Sagarin in USA Today. The offense might not have cracked the top 20 against a league-average slate. And a plus-21 turnover margin is much easier to earn against a soft schedule than against playoff-caliber opponents — especially if the two stiffest challenges are road games.
The Patriots opened as favorites of -5.5. Early money was on the underdog Titans. The line dipped to 5 by midweek and has been bouncing back and forth since. It’s telling that sharps didn’t wait to see if the public might drive the number up to 6. Pro bettors don’t sense square enthusiasm after last week’s stunner.
— The case for New England: Though the offense has been a big disappointment compared with past standards, the defense could easily drive a one-sided victory. It ranked No. 1 in the league in fewest yards allowed. And it could force miscues from high-risk/high-reward quarterback Ryan Tannehill. That creates potential for cheap Patriots points off takeaways. Experience matters in the playoffs. Fundamentals clearly favor New England.
— The case for Tennessee: Obviously, the Patriots aren’t in great form. Tennessee has been playing its best ball of the season since handing the offensive reins to Tannehill. The Titans are coming in with nothing to lose and would love to set a tone for the franchise’s direction with a huge road playoff victory over a legendary franchise.
Nobody would be shocked if New England got knocked off. Much of the country was saying that last January when the Los Angeles Chargers came to visit. New England led 35-7 at halftime.
Bettors will have to decide if the Belichick-Brady combo still has that extra gear or if we’ve already passed the beginning of the end to the most dominant era in NFL history.