Tennessee Titans (9-7) at New England Patriots (12-4)
This is a tough game to predict. If I were basing this pick solely off how these teams have played recently, the Titans would be an easy choice. Since turning to Ryan Tannehill under center following their week 6 loss in Denver, the Titans are 7-3 and have a +4.51% first down rate differential, 4th among qualifying playoff teams over that stretch. Tannehill hasn’t just been game-managing this team to victory either, as their defense has actually fallen off significantly since Tannehill took off, allowing a 37.89% first down rate over Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to a 30.93% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, in large part due to injuries. Tannehill and the offense carried this team, picking up first downs at a 42.39% rate in Tannehill’s 10 starts, as opposed to 32.69% in the first 6 games of the season, and Tannehill finished the season with a 117.5 QB rating that led the entire NFL.
I don’t expect Tannehill to be quite as good going forward, as it’s unlikely he’s suddenly become an elite quarterback in his 8th season in the league, but the Titans have plenty of talent around Tannehill on offense and any drop off from Tannehill and the offense could be compensated for by a defense that is getting healthier. They’re still without cornerback Malcolm Butler and outside linebacker Cameron Wake, but they get top cornerback Adoree Jackson back from a 5-game absence this week. Jayon Brown (2 games), Jeffery Simmons (7 games), and Jurrell Casey (2 games) are other key players who have missed time with injury and have since returned. They ranked 4th in the NFL in first down rate allowed through the first 6 games of the season and, though I wouldn’t expect them to be quite that good going forward, the arrow is pointing up on defense for the Titans with Jackson returning.
The Patriots, meanwhile, had some dominant performances early in the season and have a +5.06% first down rate differential on the season that ranks 3rd among qualifying playoff teams, but you’d have to go all the way back to week 5 to find a stretch of time in which they are better than +2% in first down rate differential when adjusted for schedule. The Titans have been better than +2% in every week since Tannehill took over. If these were normal circumstances, I would have this line calculated at New England -2, suggesting the Titans have a good chance of pulling the upset.
However, these are not normal circumstances, as Tannehill will be making his first career playoff start on the road in arguably the toughest place to play in the NFL. Quarterbacks are 14-32-1 ATS since 2002 in their first career playoff start and Tannehill has the added challenge of going into New England, where the Patriots have won 84% of games since 2001, and facing a quarterback/head coach duo that is making their 41st post-season start together. Brady is 48-19 ATS at home in his career unless he’s favored by a touchdown or more, including 6-2 ATS in the post-season. On top of that, the Patriots are 43-14 ATS since 2000 off of a loss unless they are favored by a touchdown or more. After last week’s shocking home loss to the Dolphins, the Titans are just 5-point favorites in this game.
Even the way the Patriots ended the season, statistically they had a better regular season this season than last season, when they went on to win the Super Bowl. Last year, they finished outside the top-10 in both first down rate and first down rate allowed. This year, their defense led the NFL in first down rate allowed by a wide margin, even when adjusted for schedule. They don’t have Gronk or a first round bye this year and the AFC is tougher than last year with both Kansas City and Baltimore playing at a high level, so they might not necessarily make another Super Bowl run, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they came out in the first round and looked much better than they have in weeks. I expect a particularly strong performance from their defense against a quarterback making his first career playoff start. This is a no confidence pick because the Titans could easily win this game if the Patriots look like they have in recent weeks, but I’m taking New England for pick ‘em purposes.
New England Patriots 23 Tennessee Titans 17
Pick against the spread: New England -5