Brady, Patriots don't get usual R&R heading into playoffs
ARNIE STAPLETON AP Pro Football Writer
Tom Brady and the defending champion New England Patriots aren’t getting their usual bye week to rest, relax and recharge.
Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens earned the AFC’s top seed for the first time since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs earned the No. 2 seed, a holiday gift from the Patriots, whose stunning 27-24 loss to Miami at home last weekend sent New England into the wild-card round for the first time in a decade.
“Just too many bad mistakes,” Brady lamented.
And too many bad breaks for the Patriots, a team that features a terrific defense but a sputtering offense behind an aging Brady, who has averaged just 197 yards on 59 percent passing in his last four games and who posted his lowest passer rating since 2006.
The Brady-led Patriots have never reached the Super Bowl while playing in the wild-card round.
“We talk about it each year, each team has their own journey and this is our journey,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
The Patriots host the Tennessee Titans on Saturday and the Buffalo Bills visit the Houston Texans to kick off wild-card weekend.
1. BALTIMORE RAVENS (14-2). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 1. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 47, 34-31 over San Francisco on Feb. 1, 2013. Last year: No. 4 seed, lost wild-card game at home to Los Angeles Chargers 23-17. Second consecutive trip to AFC playoffs.
YEA: Since their last loss, way back in late September, the Ravens have been virtually unstoppable on offense and exceedingly stingy on defense. That combination has produced 12 straight victories, and during that span no team came close to putting the breaks on Jackson and the league’s highest-scoring team. Not only did Jackson set an NFL single-season record for yards rushing by a QB, but he also threw 36 TD passes. Baltimore is 19-3 with Jackson as a starter during the regular season, including 13-2 this year.
NAY: Baltimore prefers any opponent other than the Chiefs, who have beaten Jackson and the Ravens twice in the past two seasons. K.C. prevailed in OT last year when Mahomes threw for 377 yards, and 28-20 on Sept. 22. Baltimore should also be wary of Buffalo, which limited Jackson to 40 yards rushing and 145 yards through the air in a 24-17 Ravens triumph on Dec. 8. Any defense facing the Ravens can make things tough for Jackson by taking away the edges and covering the tight ends, easier said than done.
SAY: “It’s not easy to win in this league. It’s a tough league, and we just have a lot of guys who believe in each other, care about each other and understand the value of hard work.” — Ravens RB Mark Ingram.
2. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (12-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 4. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 4, 23-7 over Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970. Last year: No. 1 seed, beat Indianapolis Colts 31-13 at home in divisional round, lost to New England 37-31 (OT) in AFC championship at home. Fifth consecutive trip to AFC playoffs.
YEA: The Chiefs’ biggest strength the past couple of years has been their offense, led by reigning league MVP Mahomes and with a group of high-powered playmakers including TE Travis Kelce, WRs Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and RB Damien Williams. But their emerging defense may be even more crucial to postseason success. It held back-to-back opponents without a TD before holding the Chargers in check in KC’s regular-season finale.
NAY: The Chiefs’ biggest weakness is their secondary, where the loss of safety Juan Thornhill to a season-ending ACL tear against the Chargers leaves a big void in the back end.
SAY: “We’ve got a lot of confidence, man. Defense is balling and our offense is getting things rolling. We’re the hottest team. We have the most swag in the AFC.” — Hill.
3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (12-4). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 7. Last Lombardi: Super Bowl 53, 13-3 over Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 3, 2019. Last year: No. 2 seed, beat Los Angeles Chargers 41-28 at home in divisional round, beat Kansas City Chiefs 37-31 (OT) on road in AFC championship, beat Rams at Super Bowl 53 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Eleventh consecutive trip to AFC playoffs.
YEA: One of the surprises of the 2019 season was how inconsistent the Patriots were on offense as Brady relied heavily on veteran Julian Edelman while trying to work with a group of young receivers. But New England still has a shot to make it back to its fourth consecutive Super Bowl thanks to a defense that allowed a league-low 14.1 points per game. CB Stephon Gilmore leads a defense that had 38 takeaways and makes New England a very tough out.
NAY: Brady topped 4,000 yards passing for the 11th time, but the six-time champion showed signs of slowing down at age 42. Brady and the rest of the offense declined over the last half of the season when the schedule got tougher and the injury-riddled O-line struggled to find chemistry. The Patriots scored on just half of their red zone opportunities, which was 26th in the NFL, and Brady’s 60.8% completion rate was his lowest since 2013. Unlike in years past, New England isn’t equipped for a shootout in the playoffs.
SAY: “No one feels sorry for the Patriots not getting a first-round bye in the playoffs. — safety Devin McCourty.
4. HOUSTON TEXANS (10-6). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 10. No Lombardis. Last year: No. 3 seed, lost to Indianapolis Colts 21-7 at home in wild card. Second consecutive trip to AFC playoffs.
YEA: The Texans are only as good as QB Deshaun Watson. He’s shown a penchant for coming up huge in big games but wasn’t great in his playoff debut last year. The Texans rested him last week and he should be fresh to take on the Bills. Watson threw 26 TD passes and Houston’s offense can be dangerous if he can figure out a way to rediscover the consistency he had early in the season when he had three 300-yard passing performances in five games.
NAY: Houston’s secondary has struggled all season and the Texans rank 29th in the NFL by allowing 267.2 yards passing a game. The Texans added several players during the season to improve the group, but the defense continues to allow QBs to pile up big numbers. Houston has failed to develop a consistent pass rush, which has added to the woes in the secondary. However, this could improve in the postseason with the anticipated return of star J.J. Watt from a torn chest muscle.
SAY: “To be here with this staff and a lot of these players, to be here for six years and to win four division titles, I think that’s pretty good. So, I think ultimately when you get in the playoffs we all understand what the ultimate goal is.” — coach Bill O’Brien.
5. BUFFALO BILLS (10-6). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 9. No Lombardis. Last year: 6-10. First trip to AFC playoffs since 2017.
YEA: The Bills are at their best when second-year QB Josh Allen doesn’t force throws. Allen is 10-1 overall when attempting 29 or fewer passes and 8-2 when not committing a turnover in a game he starts and finishes. The Bills’ offense relies on a balanced attack, and playing complementary football with a defense that’s held opponents to under 300 yards eight times this season.
NAY: Allen complained of experiencing early jitters in several high-profile games in December, most notably a 17-10 prime-time playoff-clinching win at Pittsburgh on Dec. 15, followed by a 24-17 loss at New England. Although Allen has five wins this season with the Bills tied or trailing in the fourth quarter, he’s also struggled in crunch time. Buffalo’s losses to the Ravens and Patriots were decided in the final two minutes, with Allen misfiring passes on fourth down in the red zone.
SAY: “We have the confidence we could play with anybody, because we’ve played against the Patriots, played them head to head, toe to toe. … Same thing with the Ravens. So we’re not scared to compete or see anybody in the playoffs.” — LB Lorenzo Alexander.
6. TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7). AP Pro32 Ranking: No. 12. No Lombardis. Last year: 9-7. First trip to AFC playoffs since 2017.
YEA: The Titans are dangerous if Pro Bowl RB Derrick Henry keeps running like the NFL rushing leader with 1,540 yards in 15 games. Henry ran for 211 yards in the regular-season finale after taking a game off to rest his sore left hamstring. Henry is why Tennessee’s play-action threat is so effective, and QB Ryan Tannehill has shown pinpoint accuracy, leading the NFL in both passer rating at 117.5 and 9.59 yards per pass attempt. That’s how Tennessee has averaged 30.4 points in Tannehill’s 10 starts.
NAY: The Titans started out holding opponents to 20 or fewer points in each of their first seven games and ended up doing that in 10 games overall. But the secondary lost CB Malcolm Butler to a broken wrist on Nov. 3, and CB Adoree’ Jackson has missed a month with an injured foot. If a game comes down to a field goal, the Titans are on their fourth different kicker, Greg Joseph. who’s perfect on extra points but hasn’t attempted a field goal in two games.
HEY: “I’m not going to be out there trying to pass rush Tom (Brady). … This isn’t about my career, my eight years in New England. This is about the Titans and our preparation to go up there and face a team that’s won three Super Bowls in the last five years. They’re 8-0 at home in that span. They’ve got the No. 1 defense, they’ve got the best coach, they’ve got the best quarterback, so it’s quite a challenge.” — Titans coach Mike Vrabel.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa Walker and AP Sports Writers Dave Ginsburg, David Skretta, Kyle Hightower, Michael Marot and John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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