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Five Things We Learned from the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs, including Titans-Ravens similarities

Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about with all the accolades he still remains humble.

From the familiar threats the Tennessee Titans will pose for the Ravens to an upset more consequential than the one in New England, here are five things we learned from the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs.

The Titans will try to beat the Ravens at their own game.

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Sixth-seeded Tennessee upset the New England Patriots with a Ravens-like approach: 201 rushing yards, a mere 16 pass attempts, opportunistic defense that produced one pick-six and could easily have produced another and resourceful game management from second-year coach Mike Vrabel.

There’s a good chance that when the Titans come to Baltimore for the AFC divisional round, they’ll try to match the league’s best team strength for strength.

The Titans go about their business differently than the Ravens, relying on a singular running force in Derrick Henry and blitzing far less frequently under former Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees. But the results, especially on offense, have been similar. The Titans ranked third in the NFL in rushing and yards per attempt; categories in which the Ravens led. Once they inserted Ryan Tannehill as their starting quarterback in Week 7, they ran a low-volume, high-efficiency passing attack based heavily on play action. Ravens rookie Marquise Brown was supposed to be the top deep threat in the 2019 draft class, but Tennessee’s A.J. Brown was a more productive home-run receiver this season, averaging 20.2 yards per catch and producing four 100-yard games over the last six weeks of the regular season.

Tennessee led the league in red-zone touchdown percentage, a category in which the Ravens ranked second. Though the Ravens were more productive over the entire season, the Titans rivaled them as the NFL’s top offensive team in the second half.

Early forecasts call for another rain-soaked game Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium, which could encourage both teams to play to their ground-based strengths. The Ravens will put intense focus on neutralizing the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, who trampled the Patriots for 182 yards on Saturday night. They’ve been vulnerable to outside runs all season but did an excellent job in Week 16 against another big, fast back, Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns. Their interior linemen played well, and they swarmed Chubb with multiple linebackers and defensive backs every time he tried to bounce outside the tackles.

The Titans cannot match the Ravens’ overall resume. That’s why they’ll have to play on the road for a second straight weekend, without the benefit of a long rest. But since they turned to Tannehill, they’ve become scarier than your typical fringe playoff team. Henry’s performance aside, we did not see the best of their offense against the Patriots. In other words, there will be no easing into the postseason for the Ravens.

The most consequential upset of the first round did not occur in New England.

The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champions and standard-bearers for an NFL generation, but they weren’t the best team to go down this weekend.

That dubious distinction goes to the New Orleans Saints, who lost in overtime to the Minnesota Vikings in a wildly uncharacteristic performance. This was good news for the San Francisco 49ers and even for the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs, who won’t have to worry about the balanced, explosive Saints down the line.

We probably underrated the Vikings, who have a top-10 defense and high-end skill players in running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. But the Saints had won six of seven games and were playing as well as anyone other than the Ravens and perhaps the Chiefs. Everyone knew about their offense, but they also played sturdy run defense, excelled on special teams and hardly ever turned the ball over.

That team was mysteriously absent Sunday. The Saints turned the ball over twice, converted on just four of 11 third downs and allowed Cook to approach 100 rushing yards in the first half alone. They rallied in the fourth quarter but had to settle for a game-tying field goal after coach Sean Payton mangled his clock management late in regulation. Then they fell victim to a sensational 43-yard completion from Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to Thielen on the first drive of overtime. Three plays later, Cousins found tight end Kyle Rudolph in the corner of the end zone to end it (Rudolph pushed off, but there was contact both ways and the officials did the right thing by swallowing their whistles).

A disbelieving hush fell over the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and we were all reminded why it’s so important to earn a playoff bye. One of the best four teams in football was out of the tournament.

Don’t bury the Patriots just yet.

The obituaries for Tom Brady’s peerless New England tenure flowed thick in the wee hours of Sunday morning as we processed the Patriots’ most whimpering playoff exit of the past decade.

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The shocking thing about New England’s 20-13 loss to the Titans was how not shocking it felt. The Patriots faltered in all the ways they had faltered over the second half of the season, unable to muster any sustained offense as Brady threw to one undistinguished target after another. Even Julian Edelman, the last receiver standing from vintage offenses of Patriots past, let the great quarterback down with a late drop.

Bill Belichick’s lack of investment in building an offense around Brady came home to roost. So it felt natural to elegize a dying dynasty built on said coach and said quarterback.

We’d probably all be wise, however, to set down our spades.

Yes, the 42-year-old Brady (who threw with plenty of zip against Tennessee) is free to sign with any team and yes, reports have swirled that he might be ready to go forward without Belichick for the first time in his career. But mightn’t Brady decide, after surveying his options, that he cannot do better than one of history’s greatest coaches? Mightn’t Patriots owner Robert Kraft sell him on the poetry of finishing where he started?

This Patriots season was hardly the unmitigated disaster it felt like Saturday night. Brady and Belichick still won 12 games, still maintained their stranglehold on the AFC East. The defense, in which Belichick invested so heavily, met expectations. Add one major offensive playmaker to the mix (the Patriots briefly had that man in Antonio Brown) and the end result might have been very different.

Maybe the obituaries are correct. Maybe the great witch of Foxborough, Massachusetts, is ding-dong dead. But the 2019 Patriots were too close to being a very good team for us to treat this as a foregone conclusion.

The Texans’ elite individual talent makes them a problem, even if they often seem less than the sum of their parts.

At no time this season did Houston play like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The Texans came into the playoffs ranked 23rd in weighted DVOA, FootballOutsiders.com’s statistic measuring overall efficiency, with added emphasis on recent games. That was easily worst among the 12 teams that qualified for the postseason.

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The Texans quickly played down to that ranking, spotting the visiting Buffalo Bills a 16-point lead in their wild-card matchup. Houston remained within shouting distance only because the Bills could not finish drives.

But Houston rallied in the second half, and it did so because of the three truly exceptional players on its roster: quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive end J.J. Watt.

Watson could not get his offense moving in the first half but was the best player on the field after halftime, finishing the game 20-for-25 against an excellent pass defense and leading the Texans with 55 rushing yards. He made the play of the game in overtime when he spun away from a double hit to complete the pass that set up a decisive field goal.

Hopkins, a first-team All-Pro each of the past three seasons, was shut out in the first half but caught six passes for 90 yards in the second half and overtime. He made one of the game’s most important plays when he beat one-on-one coverage by All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White for a 41-yard catch that set up Houston’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Watt, meanwhile, returned from a pectoral tear that was originally thought to end his season. He did not dominate on every down as he does at his best, but he did pressure Bills quarterback Josh Allen on a series of key plays in the second half. Watt finished with a sack and another quarterback hit, harassing Allen into a discombobulated performance that ultimately sank Buffalo’s chances.

The Texans will be a significant underdog against the Chiefs, and they should be. They did nothing Saturday to suggest they’re ready to upset one of the league’s best teams. But if the game is close, the big-play abilities of Watson, Hopkins and Watt will be enough to inspire unease.

This weekend reminded us of the NFL’s incredible power as a pop culture product.

Cultural commentators often talk about the disappearance of unifying experiences in our fragmented society. From hit television shows to the World Series, we simply don’t gather to watch the way we did in previous eras.

Except when it comes to the NFL.

If you spent any time on social media Saturday or Sunday, you know just how much thought and passion people poured into these four wild-card games, each of which remained competitive until the final whistle. It didn’t matter if you had a rooting interest in any of the eight teams involved. Millions of us threw up our hands at Josh Allen’s decision-making or wondered whether we’d seen the last of Tom Brady in Foxborough or shared 40-year-old dad jokes about Philadelphia Eagles backup quarterback Josh McCown. We talked about the games, and then we talked some more.

Other sports might achieve this level of cultural penetration with a Game 7 or a national title showdown. Only the NFL commands such attention for every one of its playoff games (and its prime-time games during the regular season, for that matter). Patriots-Titans, for example, averaged 31.4 million viewers, 8 million more than the deciding game of the 2019 World Series and 13 million more than the deciding game of the 2019 NBA Finals.

That’s why professional football roars past troubling questions about the long-term health of players and its handling of outspoken figures such as Colin Kaepernick. We love to watch it. We can’t help ourselves.

AFC divisional round

Titans@Ravens

Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 A.M.

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