If you’re like me, you’re the kind of person that wants to punch the guy at the bar who sees an upset and says, “That’s why they play the games!” Well, sometimes, that annoying cliché winds up being accurate, like in the case of the Wild Card Weekend game between the Tennessee Titans and the Kansas City Chiefs. Andy Reid played not to lose and lost, as the Titans erased a 21-3 deficit and advanced with a stunning 22-21 win. Their prize for the upset? A visit to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts and a date with the New England Patriots. The Patriots are a 13.5-point favorite for the first of two AFC Divisional Round matchups. 5Dimes Sportsbook was the first to hit the market with a total on the game that is sitting at 47.
The Titans won their way into the postseason with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 17 and won their way into the Divisional Round with that upset over the Chiefs, in which Marcus Mariota made history by “throwing” a touchdown pass to himself. That win took the Titans to 10-7 on the season and bumped them to 9-7-1 ATS, though some are sitting at 8-8-1 on the Titans’ spreads for the season. All four underdogs covered in the Wild Card Round after going 0-4 ATS last season. Two won outright, including the Titans. Yay parity!
The Patriots have been lying in wait for this one and you can bet that they are just fine with facing the Titans instead of the Chiefs. Not to say that the Patriots were worried about a Chiefs team that they would have been around a touchdown favorite against, but being nearly a two-touchdown favorite in the Divisional Round is a nice feeling. New England wrapped up a 13-3 regular season with a blowout win over the Jets to finish 11-5 ATS. It is astounding that such a public team, with a remarkable ATS run under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can manage to go 11-5 ATS the year after going 16-3 ATS. That’s right, New England is 27-8 ATS over the last two seasons. Simply incredible.
The narrative for Tennessee’s upset win over Kansas City will center around how the Chiefs choked. They were up 18 at halftime. They dropped passes and the play calling got conservative. While all of these things are true, some credit needs to go to the team from Nashville that did not quit. Tennessee had 397 yards and 6.2 yards per play. Tennessee hadn’t eclipsed 390 yards since Week 10 against the Bengals. The Titans had their first 200-yard rushing game of the season and took it to the Chiefs at the point of attack. It helped that DeMarco Murray didn’t take up any carries because Derrick Henry ran for 156 and a touchdown on his 23 attempts. Marcus Mariota had eight runs for 46 yards and the key block that sprung Henry’s game-sealing rush. Mariota wasn’t great throwing the ball, with 19 completions on 31 tosses for 205, two touchdowns, and a pick, but he didn’t have to be because the Titans owned the line of scrimmage. Against a Patriots defense that allowed 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season, who’s to say that the Titans can’t do it again?
Lost in the shuffle of the 22-21 win is that the Titans did not play well defensively. While the Chiefs only managed 21 points, they had 6.1 yards per play. Alex Smith was sacked four times, but most of those were coverage sacks or times when he stepped up into the rush. Those four sacks only accounted for eight lost yards. He was 24-of-33 passing for 264 yards. Kansas City didn’t run the ball all that effectively, but was way too obvious with the play calling in the second half to break some runs. That will be the big concern for Tennessee this week. Can the Titans stop Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack? Kareem Hunt had three catches for five yards. We know that Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels love to use the running backs in the passing game. The game also turned when Travis Kelce was lost with a concussion. The Titans had no answer for Kelce in the middle of the field, which means that finding an answer for Rob Gronkowski probably won’t happen either. The Titans did only allow five yards per play, but were average against the pass per adjusted net yards per pass attempt against and did well against the run. The Patriots aren’t going to run the ball much and the Chiefs had no problems moving it through the air.
Per usual, the Patriots had one of the best offenses in the NFL. New England finished tied for third with 5.9 yards per play. New England’s 11.9 yards per reception was tied for seventh and the Patriots actually had 4.2 yards per carry, which was good enough to tie for 11th. In the playoffs, Tom Brady has a 62.7 percent completion rate with a 63/31 TD/INT ratio. The Patriots scored at least 34 points in all three playoff games last season and won the first two playoff games by an average of 18.5 points per game. That is the concern for the Titans. If they cannot hold New England to a reasonable number, not only is winning the game out of the question, but covering the spread is also in serious doubt. Dion Lewis had five yards per carry and caught 32 of his 35 targets. James White had four yards per carry and 56 receptions on 72 targets. The Titans just don’t have enough bodies to cover everybody. To be fair, most teams don’t.
What can allow Tennessee to hang around here, however, is that the New England defense is bad. The Patriots tied for 28th in yards per play allowed with 5.7. That number was up over six yards per play allowed for a good chunk of the first half of the season, so things did improve a bit as the year went along, but this is still a subpar defense. The Patriots were awful against the run and below league average against the pass with 6.3 adjusted net yards per pass attempt allowed. What is particularly interesting is that the Chiefs were a pretty porous defense as well. Like the Patriots, the Chiefs lack team speed and had problems getting Derrick Henry down in space. We’ll have to see if the Patriots fare a little bit better in that area, but the blueprint is there for the Titans to have a similar game plan and similar success. The problem is that they’ll have to be very efficient with their possessions because holding New England to 21 points doesn’t seem all that likely.
Free NFL Pick: New England Patriots -13.5
The Titans are playing with house money at this point. Knocking off the Chiefs for the franchise’s first playoff win since 2003 was a huge accomplishment. That’s not to say that the Titans are going into this game with a losing mentality, but that it is hard to repeat the feat twice in a row. The Patriots should be able to wear down the Titans by staying on the field offensively. Bill Belichick won’t get conservative and leave the door open. The blueprint for success is there for the Titans to move the football effectively with the run, but the margin for error is much smaller this week. This is a really big number, but it’s big for a reason and a blowout is a legitimate possibility.