A defeat to Miami ended New England's tradition of a week off and a home game in the Divisional Round, and now face one of the hottest teams, writes Mark Kirwan...
"He posted 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions for the season while averaging over 250 yards per game passing. Where Mariota failed to connect with huge rookie target AJ Brown, Tannehill has unlocked the potential of the bruising pass catcher as he amassed a 1,000-yard season and eight TDs."
Tennessee Titans @ New England Patriots
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Patriots season flipped by Dolphins
If this season proves to be the beginning of the end for the Patriots, as many are predicting, the final four minutes in Week 17's home match-up against Miami will go down in history as a moment when the league's power balance shifted.
The Dolphins were 17-point underdogs for the game, yet drove over the Pats D with the erratic Ryan Fitzpatrick at QB and mercurial Devante Parker catching pass after pass. They may have dealt a fatal blow to the Super Bowl hopes of their AFC East rivals this season at the very least.
Securing a top-two finish in the conference guaranteed home-field for at least one game in the postseason and a bye-week reduced the challenge to a three-game tournament.
It was broadly going to plan until last week. The Pats had been far more reliant on their defence this season than usual, with their solid front setting a record pace through the early weeks of the season, compensating for the loss of Rob Gronkowski, an ever-changing line-up at wide receiver and an unproductive running game.
But it didn't hold up. The second half of the campaign showed that these numbers were underpinned in part by a softer schedule than most, and, with playoff-bound teams from Kansas City, Baltimore, Houston and Philadelphia all faced after Week 9, the defending Super Bowl champions were pegged back by the pack.
That recession without the ball wasn't matched by improvement with it. The offence finished the season ranking 15th in the league in DVOA. That means they've rated as little better than league average over the course of 16 games.
They've struggled to move the ball in the passing game because Tom Brady lacks playmakers to throw to, and have similarly laboured on the ground, where injuries along the line have curtailed the output from their committee of backs.
New England would've got away with it if they'd beaten the Dolphins as second in the conference was there for the taking. Instead, their 4-4 close to the season saw them slip to third seed, and while they might've landed a middling opponent in previous seasons, this year they'll meet one of the league's in-form teams - their sluggish offence will need to wake up if they're to keep pace with the Titans.
Quarterback change rescues season
Some might begrudge Tennessee credit for their midseason turnaround because it took them so long to make a call they could've -maybe should've - made in preseason.
When Ryan Tannehill was picked up after leaving Miami in the offseason, plenty of people thought he looked a perfect fit for the AFC South side. And so it proved in training camp, where rumours circulated that head coach Mike Vrabel would prefer to go with the veteran over their second overall pick from 2015 Marcus Mariota.
But they stuck with the starter from last season and found that six games was all the rope he needed.
Tannehill stepped in during Week 6's 16-0 embarrassment at the hands of Denver and has been a revelation since, lifting the team to the fourth-best yards-per-play rate in the league - only the Ravens and Chiefs of the remaining playoff teams have been better this season. He posted 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions for the season while averaging over 250 yards per game passing.
Where Mariota failed to connect with huge rookie target AJ Brown, Tannehill has unlocked the potential of the bruising pass catcher as he amassed a 1,000-yard season and eight TDs. Jonnu Smith emerged with Delanie Walker out, Tajae Sharpe has made plays, even Corey Davis has shown up, and Adam Humphries has looked the useful addition he should've been for Mariota.
It hasn't been all about the QB though. Derrick Henry always showed plenty of potential since being drafted - the mystery was why the Titans insisted on splitting carries with another back. He finished this season as the league's leading rusher with 1,540 yard and 16 scores along the ground. Behind his powerful running, the Titans surged into the final playoff spot with a win over the Houston Texans' second-stringers in Week 17.
Their offensive play should mean their mediocre defence won't limit them too much. They're not bad against the run, but rank below average against the pass and will need to continue their strong performance on third-down - their opponents are converting just over one in every three times on the crucial down this season - if they're to press the favoured Pats here.
Every non-Patriots fan has surely had a moment in the past where they've said, "They're finished," only to have it come back to bite them, so I'm not going to say they're done, but just looking at these two teams and how they're playing, I have to side with the visiting underdog +5.5 on the Exchange at 1.9110/11.
The case for them is clear. Their offence capable of overwhelming New England if their defensive slide continues, and gives Tennessee a shot at an upset road victory - they could be a very dangerous team in further rounds too.
Tennessee with Tannehill did only beat one team that finished the season with a winning record though, and Bill Belichick will likely aim to eat the clock in this with long drives, limit the Titans opportunities with the ball and grind out a low-scoring win. I would doubt whether Titans coach Mike Vrabel can wrestle control away from his opposite number if it becomes a coaching chess match.
However, on the plus side, the Titans beat up on the Pats last season, they have a clear advantage in terms of offensive talent, and coach Belichick also has a pretty poor record against former players and assistants, a list that includes Vrabel.
Put simply, +5.5 points is just too big to turn down. Assuming home advantage is worth a field goal, it's hard to make a case that the Titans have been that much worse than the Pats through the latter half of the season, so this should be closer to pick'em. Tennessee is the side to be on despite any fear of writing off Brady and Belichick prematurely once again.
I'd also look at the over on 44.5 total points at 1.9620/21 because of the Titans offensive explosiveness. The Patriots defence fell apart against Miami when Stephon Gilmore could not contain Devante Parker. AJ Brown could be an even bigger problem for the secondary the way he's playing and that'll mean points.
For a TD scorer, Titans RB Henry had 18 scores in total for the season, so he looks the clear safe option for an anytime punt at 5/6 on the Sportsbook for Same Game Multis. Combine him with Over 45.5 Total Points and a Titans upset win for a pay-out of over 7/1.
For a first TD, I'd assume the Patriots try to control the game with a lot of running plays and using two tight end formations early, so names like Rex Burkhead and Matt LaCosse hold some appeal at big prices of around 17/1 and 25/1 respectively.
1pt on Tennessee +5.5 on the Handicap market @ 1.9110/11 on the Exchange
1pt on Over 44.5 on the Total Points market @ 1.9620/21 on the Exchange
.25pt on Rex Burkhead First Touchdown Scorer @ 17/1 on the Sportsbook
.25pt on Matt LaCosse First Touchdown Scorer @ 25/1 on the Sportsbook
.25pt on Tennessee to win, Over 45.5 Points and Henry Anytime TD in a Same Game Multi @ 7/1 on the Sportsbook