The Patriots have been compared to a sporting dynasty and to Palpatine's Evil Empire. Regardless of which is true, there's no denying that New England enters these playoffs more vulnerable than in quite a few years.
One thing we've learned since Tom Brady went from 199th draft pick to dominant NFL figure is not to dismiss him and his Patriots. Sure, they have been ultra-sloppy in the second half of the schedule, and blowing a bye with a home loss to the Dolphins not only was stunning, it was inexcusable.
Not that the Patriots are looking backward. They never do.
“Everything we want is still out there in front of us,” running back James White says. “Just got to recalibrate, short week, good opponent, just got to be ready to go, go out there and have fun, play physical, know your job, do it to the best of your abilities. You never know which play is going to make a difference.”
The big difference in Tennessee is at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill has been dynamic and a winner since taking over for Marcus Mariota. Derrick Henry led the league in rushing and is a threat inside or outside. The defense is solid enough, though it doesn't measure up to New England's league leaders.
Mike Vrabel has the look of a coach on the rise, as does his team. No. 12 (AP Pro32) Tennessee is a 4 1/2-point underdog for Saturday night at No. 7 New England.
Pro Picks just can't go against the Brady Bunch in this one, as tempting as it might be.
No. 9 Buffalo (plus 3) at No. 10 Houston, Saturday
Forget that the Bills lost their last two games. They tested New England to the limit in their 15th game, then had nothing on the line in the finale with the Jets.
This is a much better Buffalo squad than what went to the playoffs two years ago to break that endless postseason drought.
“We're legit,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander says.
We'll find out how legit in the opener of the wild-card round. Houston tends to disappoint once it gets into the postseason: The Texans are 3-5 in the playoffs and never have reached a conference title game.
UPSET SPECIAL: BILLS 23-16
No. 8 Minnesota (plus 7 1/2) at No. 2 New Orleans, Sunday
What craziness will strike the Saints in these playoffs to keep them from the Super Bowl? Already, at 13-3, they could only manage a wild card. In the AFC, they would have been the No. 2 seed.
Nothing has been easy in the Big Easy for the Saints in January. Two years ago, they fell victim to some terrible defending in the secondary for the “Minneapolis Miracle.” Last year, it was terrible officiating that cost them a trip to the big game.
But New Orleans also has been on a nice run lately, and the same can't be said for inconsistent Minnesota.
“Overall the team kind of heads into this postseason with some confidence based on how we've been playing,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “And yet I think they understand the type of tournament this is.”
They know better than anyone that it is a crapshoot.
BEST BET: SAINTS, 30-17
No. 6 Seattle (minus 1 1/2) at No. 11 Philadelphia, Sunday
Maybe the two most resilient teams in the league meet at the Linc. Unfortunately, one of their main links is injuries — both have been decimated by them.
Somehow, the Eagles ran off four straight victories to conclude the schedule and steal the NFC East despite playing with much of the junior varsity on the field. King-size kudos to coach Doug Pederson and his staff for not only finding the right subs, but getting them ready to play key roles in the stretch drive. And the same praise for Carson Wentz, who has validated himself as a franchise quarterback during this stretch.
That said, the Seahawks have more talent remaining than do the Eagles. They also went 7-1 on the road, so they have no fear of flying to Philly.
Last Week: 9-7 against spread, 10-6 straight up.
Season Totals: 134-117-4 against spread, 152-101-1 straight up.
Best Bet: 12-5 against spread, 14-3 straight up.
Upset special: 8-9 against spread, 8-9 straight up.