The Patriots are rested, recharged and rankled
Recharged and rankled are the New England Patriots, who await a visit from the Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional playoffs next weekend.
The Titans (10-7) are coming off their first playoff win in 14 seasons, a 22-21 thriller at Kansas City in the wild-card round Saturday that left the Chiefs winless at Arrowhead in the postseason since 1994.
The Patriots (13-3) are fresh off their eighth consecutive first-round bye as they seek their third title in four years.
They’re not only refreshed but fired up after a report suggesting a fractured relationship that could break up the franchise’s three most important pieces in QB Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
Jacksonville (11-6), coming off its first playoff win in a decade, a 10-3 snoozer over Buffalo on Sunday, visits Pittsburgh (13-3) in the other AFC divisional playoff game (1:05 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS).
The Steelers are hoping the weekend off helps Antonio Brown return from a torn calf he sustained on Dec. 17 against New England.
The NFC’s top seed, Philadelphia (13-3), hosts the defending conference champion Atlanta Falcons (11-6) on Saturday (4:35 p.m. ET on NBC) and the Minnesota Vikings (13-3) host the New Orleans Saints (4:40 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX).
The Saints (12-5) edged Carolina 31-26 Sunday night in the wild-card weekend finale.
The Falcons throttled the upstart Los Angeles Rams 26-13 Saturday night, sending the league’s best comeback story of 2017 to a premature end.
The Patriots have won 11 of 12 after stumbling to a 2-2 start but the buzz around Boston isn’t about their usual dominance but whether that excellence could be coming to an end soon.
Brady, Belichick and Kraft released a joint statement this weekend dismissing as “flat-out inaccurate” an ESPN report detailing an array of tension in New England between the triumphant triumvirate responsible for decorating team headquarters with five championship trophies.
One of the many things the Patriots are good at is navigating negativity.
Last year they overcame the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to win it all and they’re trying to do the same this year without receiver Julian Edelman and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, two of their biggest stars.
The Titans came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit Saturday at Kansas City and in the process probably saved coach Mike Mularkey’s job .
Team owner Amy Adams Strunk on Sunday said her coach isn’t going anywhere after helping change the Titans’ culture and leading them to their first playoff victory in 14 years.
The Titans opened as 13-point underdogs to the Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET on CBS).
“This is a good test for our football team,” Mularkey said, “but these are the type of games you have to win.”
Or go home.
The Titans needed an amazing comeback to get their latest win, which tied for the second-largest rally by a road team in the playoffs. Dallas also overcame an 18-point deficit in 1972 in the divisional round to beat San Francisco.
Only Detroit’s rally from 20 points down in 1957 to beat the 49ers in the divisional round was bigger than Tennessee’s comeback.
The other AFC game is a rematch of Week 5, when the Jaguars beat Pittsburgh 30-9 . Ben Roethlisberger, who threw five interceptions in that game, has led Pittsburgh to 10 wins in 11 games since then with the lone loss coming against the Patriots, 24-21 last month when Brown got hurt and missed most of the showdown in Pittsburgh.
In Blake Bortles, the Steelers will face a quarterback who ran for more yards (88) than he threw for (87) Sunday and who put together one decent drive all day.
“We weren’t sharp, we made some bad plays and did some stupid stuff, but we found a way to win and that’s all that matters,” said Bortles, whose TD pass to backup tight end Ben Koyack late in the third quarter was his best throw of the game and a gutsy call on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Although they’re the sixth seed, the Falcons are the only NFC team to make it back to the playoffs this year, and that edge in experience showed Saturday night in the Rams’ first playoff game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 1979.
One year after advancing to the Super Bowl, the Falcons are “a battle-tested brotherhood,” suggested coach Dan Quinn, who added Sunday “That kind of experience I thought certainly showed up last night.”
After showing impressive poise against the Rams, it’s on to Philadelphia, which is the NFC’s top seed for the first time since 2004 but is led by backup quarterback Nick Foles following a season-ending knee injury to MVP hopeful Carson Wentz.
So, it’s no surprise the Falcons opened as 2-point favorites on the road.
The Vikings are coming off a first-round playoff bye for the first time since 2000 and they’ll face a Saints team that features Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, who combined for 1,852 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns during the regular season but were quiet Sunday, managing just 45 yards on 19 carries but one of them was a 2-yard TD by Kamara.
The Vikings beat the Saints 29-19 on opening weekend when Sam Bradford and not Case Keenum was under center for Minnesota.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed.