Brady-led Patriots entertain Titans as NFL playoff open


New York (AFP)

Six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady leads the defending champion New England Patriots into the NFL playoffs Saturday against visiting Tennessee in what could be the end of an era.

The 42-year-old quarterback has vowed to keep playing as long as he's able but his 60.9 percent completion rate is his worst since 2013 and New England missed out on a first-round bye with a home loss to 5-11 Miami last Sunday.

The Patriots (12-4) have won six of nine Super Bowl appearances since Brady and coach Bill Belichick began working together, including three of the past five, but they have never reached the Super Bowl without a first-round bye.

"Everyone knows what's at stake," Brady said. "You have to earn it to move on."

Brady owns NFL's all-time playoff records with 30 wins, 40 games, 1,005 completions, 11,179 passing yards and 73 touchdown passes -- and he hasn't pondered that this could be his last game with New England.

"I haven't thought about those things. I wouldn't be thinking about those things anyway. It has felt like a normal week for me," Brady said.

"I'm not much for nostalgia. I'm just pretty focused on what I need to do. This week has felt pretty much like every other week for the last 20 years."

Belichick ignored the question when asked about the possibility of coaching his final game with Brady.

"We're focused on the Titans really. That's all I'm focused on," Belichick said. "We'll keep working and play the best game we can Saturday."

Buffalo will visit Houston in Saturday's other NFL playoff game while Sunday sends Minnesota to New Orleans and Seattle to Philadelphia.

NFL wins leader Baltimore (14-2), Kansas City (12-4), San Francisco (13-3) and Green Bay (13-3) all have first-round byes and will host conference semi-finals.

The Titans inflicted New England's most lopsided loss in the past five years by 34-10 in 2018 and are coached by Mike Vrabel, who was a Patriots linebacker for eight seasons, helping New England win three Super Bowls and even catching touchdown passes from Brady in two title games.

"We're going to have to go on the road in a tough environment. I know what's ahead," Vrabel said. "We're basically walking into the viper's den."

Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill makes his playoff debut guiding a Titans attack that led the NFL by scoring touchdowns 75.6 percent of the time they reached the opponent's 20-yard line, but the Patriots boast the NFL's top defensive unit -- allowing 275.9 total yards and 95.5 run yards a game -- and were among the best at denying foes' the end zone from inside the 20.

"It's obviously a big opportunity for us, a huge challenge," Tannehill said. "I definitely expect it to be an intense game."

Titans running back Derrick Henry led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards.

"Running the ball effectively is the key to winning games in the playoffs," Henry said. "They do a really good job scheming and they throw a variety of things at you on defense."

Tennessee plans to do the same to the Patriots to keep Brady off balance.

"We have to make sure we keep him frustrated throughout the whole game," Titans defensive lineman Jurrell Casey said. "We have to make sure it's uncomfortable for him."

- Watt returns for Texans -

Buffalo, which hasn't won a playoff game since the 1995 season, boasts the NFL's second-best scoring defense, the Bills allowing only 16.2 points a game entering their second playoff game since the 1999 season.

But the Texans will welcome back star defensive end J.J. Watt, reactivated after missing the past two months with a torn pectoral muscle.

"We have a good plan for how we're going to go throughout the game," Watt said. "Very pleased with where it's at."

NFL career passing completions, yardage and touchdowns leader Drew Brees, who turns 41 later this month, powers the Saints against Minnesota on Sunday before famously loud New Orleans supporters.

"I don't know what it is about him," Vikings safety Anthony Harris said of Brees. "I just know his ball placement is right on target every single time."

Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz will make his playoff debut on Sunday against the Seahawks.

Wentz underwent knee surgery to miss Philly's playoff run to the 2018 Super Bowl crown and was sidelined by a December back injury last season.

"I'm excited. I'm grateful to be healthy," Wentz said. "I'm pretty pumped for the opportunity."