Eight teams are left standing. Now, the NFL playoff preview you’ve been waiting for.
After a first-round bye last week, the New England Patriots, who hold the number one seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, are set to go back to work against the Tennessee Titans Saturday night.
The most productive offense in the league (number one in yards and points) is primed to compete against the AFC’s best defenses in the cold weather of Foxborough. The Patriots have been tested all season, and will hope to use their big-game experience to capture the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy since 2001.
Offense: WR Danny Amendola, TE Rob Gronkowski
Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman led the NFL in postseason receiving last year. “Minitron” has been out for the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, and New England has missed his hands in tough moments. The Pats will have to make up for Edelman’s 21 receptions and 342 yards garnered last postseason by spreading the ball around the field and targeting their quick slot receivers in creative ways.
Look for quarterback Tom Brady to target receiver Danny Amendola (61 receptions, 659 yards, 2 TDs) down low, while deep threats Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan draw opposing secondaries down the field. That still leaves the middle of the field, which brings us to impact tight end Rob Gronkowski (69 receptions, 1,084 yards, 8 TDs).
Gronk was forced to watch last postseason from afar with a back injury and is hungry for another Super Bowl appearance. Too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs, he is a nightmare to cover across the middle.
Amendola and Gronkowski have a combined 20 games of postseason experience and two Super Bowl rings each. Their experience gives them the power to be huge difference-makers for New England, this postseason.
Defense: LB Kyle Van Noy, S Patrick Chung
New England finished the regular season with the league’s fifth-best defense in points allowed, yet performed third-worst in yards allowed. What does this mean? The problem lies with New England’s front seven, rather than with its secondary. More proof: The Patriots defense ranks 17th out of 32 teams in completion percentage allowed, but has given up the league’s second-worst average yards per rush (4.7).
The Pats’ D also ranks 21st in the league on third-down conversions. The loss of linebacker Dont’a Hightower in October has been an incredibly tough hole to fill and must be plugged up by Kyle Van Noy (73 total tackles, 5.5 sacks) in order to stop elite rushing attacks in the playoffs.
New England could face Jacksonville (number one rushing offense) in the AFC Championship. It should also be noted that three potential Super Bowl teams from the NFC (Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Minnesota) have top 10 rushing offenses.
Ninth-year Patriot Patrick Chung has the potential to pop in these playoffs. In 16 postseason games, Chung has yet to come up with an interception or force a fumble and is way overdue to make something incredible happen on the big stage. Be on the lookout for Chung to finally have a magical playoff moment that NFL Films will play back for years to come.
Best Win and Worst Loss
Best Win: 27-24 over Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 15)
The margin of victory was razor thin over Pittsburgh, but this December matchup, in cold weather and on the road, was as tough of a test as any that the Patriots will face this postseason. In all likelihood, New England will face Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship. This win in a hostile environment came late enough in the season to serve as an invaluable tune-up heading into the playoffs.
Worst Loss: 42-27 to Kansas City Chiefs (Week 1)
Kansas City rained all over the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI celebration in week one, dumping 537 yards and 42 points (including 21 in the fourth quarter) on New England’s defense - the highest score ever allowed by the Patriots under Head Coach Bill Belichick. Since then, the Pats are 13-2 and have held four teams to 8 points or less.
Previous Matchups with Playoff Teams
Week 1: 42-27 Loss vs. (4) Kansas City Chiefs
Week 2: 36-20 Win at (4) New Orleans Saints
Week 4: 33-30 Loss vs. (5) Carolina Panthers
Week 7: 23-7 Win vs. (6) Atlanta Falcons
Week 13: 23-3 Win at (6) Buffalo Bills
Week 15: 27-24 Win at (2) Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 16: 37-16 Win vs. (6) Buffalo Bills
New England has been tested against the NFL’s best, surviving a tough schedule to earn the top seed in the AFC. The Pats went 5-2 against playoff teams in the regular season and could see Pittsburgh and either Atlanta or New Orleans again in the postseason (each of those regular season matchups resulted in Patriots victory, including two on the road).
Performance Leading Up to Postseason
New England looked incredibly lost in September. It was clear that the team was struggling to find an identity on defense and was having a difficult time getting creative with the offense, having little time to adjust following Julian Edelman’s preseason knee injury. After a 2-2 start, the Patriots have been challenged against the NFL’s best and have gone 11-1 en route to a probable MVP season for Tom Brady, and possibly a sixth Super Bowl ring as well.
Level of Contender: Very High
The duo of Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have gone into battle together 34 times in the postseason. You simply can’t hope to match up evenly with the Patriots from an experience or mental standpoint.
One overlooked storyline is that the team is incredibly rested. They haven’t had to travel for a game since December 17th and have been on the East Coast since November 20th. They won’t have to travel again until they potentially go to the Super Bowl in Minnesota.
As has become the norm, the road to Super Bowl LII goes through New England, and no team is more likely to come out alive than - you guessed it - New England.
Edited by Brian Kang.
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