When the New England Patriots greet the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night, they may put out the welcome mat for them but then pick it up and hit them with it. That's about as hospitable as New England can be to an opposing team this season.
Any welcome will certainly be a cold one, both literally and figuratively. The New England area expects to be frostier than usual for this Saturday night game with temperatures in the single digits and a likely sub-zero wind chill. While the cold will affect both teams, Patriots Football Weekly noted that the Titans have lost their last two games played in temperatures below 32 degrees and are 3-3 since 1998 in such games. The Patriots are 8-1 in similar circumstances.
New England's home field advantage is made from more than thermostats, however.
First, the Patriots are at home this weekend because they own the league's best record at 14-2, earning themselves the American Football Conference's top seed, a first round bye, and home field advantage. The Patriots are riding a 12-game winning streak, and seven of those wins came against teams with a winning record.
Second, eight of their games this year were at home and New England won every one of them. And three of those wins were shutouts: two 12-0 games and a 31-0 blowout in the season finale. The Patriots actually tied a record set in 1938 with a stretch of four home games in a row without giving up a touchdown.
The third factor is the one that made those shutouts and record-tying performances possible: dominating defense. For some reason, the league measures the top defenses by yards given up, and by that measure, the Patriots rank 7th in the league. But games are decided by the score, not which team gains the most yards, and therefore the more important statistic for a defense is points given up.
In that category, the Patriots are first in the league. They allowed an average of just 14.9 points per game this season. By comparison, the stout Tennessee defense, which ranks 12th in yards given up, ranks 13th in points given up, allowing 20.2 per game.
New England has an edge in all other defensive categories, as well. They have held opposing quarterbacks to the worst quarterback ratings in the league (that is, the Patriots are the best in the league at shutting down opposing passers). Opposing quarterbacks completed an average of just 53% of their passes against the New England defense, the 2nd best defensive performance in the league (Tennessee ranked 24th, allowing just under 61% completions). Opposing teams gained just 5.2 yards per pass play against New England while Tennessee allowed 6.6 yards per pass play.
The Patriots are also the league's most opportunistic pass defense. They top the AFC with 29 interceptions for a league-leading 5 touchdown returns. Their pass defense allowed 11 touchdowns in 16 games.
In turnovers in general New England is a net plus-17, the second best in the league. Tennessee was right behind them, though, with a net plus-13, the third best.
The Patriots' defensive excellence continues against the running game, too. The Patriots allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season, and that was in a game where they were without their All-Pro defensive lineman, Richard Seymour. No opposing team's running back scored a touchdown in New England (although opposing quarterbacks, including Tennessee's Steve McNair, did score rushing touchdowns via quarterback draws). The Patriots were 6th in the league with just 3.6 yards allowed per run play (Tennessee was 7th with a 3.8 average).
This is not to say that the Patriots have been winning with ease. Of their 12-straight wins, half have been by less than a touchdown. Then again, that could only prove the Patriots' toughness – they are a resilient team that does not fold in difficult situations.
But there is a sense of eeriness, too, in this upcoming game against the Titans. The Patriots' franchise-best 12-game winning streak began on October 5th when they beat none other than the Tennessee Titans. It is interesting that the Patriots will have to keep the streak alive against the same team where it all began.
It is also odd that New England has won every home playoff game the franchise has had since an AFC divisional round loss against Houston on December 31st, 1978 – and the then-Houston Oilers are now the Tennessee Titans (see below for more on the Patriots' home playoff history).
And the Titans are no pushovers. They have seasoned veterans with playoff experience, having been to the AFC Championship game in two of the last four years.
The Titans also proved back in October that they can roll up points on the Patriots in New England. Although the Titans lost that game, they still scored 30 points on a team that gave up just 68 total points at home all season.
The Titans did it with big plays. The Patriots gave up just five plays of 40 yards or more all season, and three of those five came in that game against Tennessee (two were McNair passes to receiver Tyrone Calico; the other was a 43-yarder to Justin McCariens). Although the Patriots were without many of the players that have since become their defensive stalwarts (lineman Ted Washington and linebackers Ted Johnson, Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest), the New England defense will need to contain the Titans' explosiveness to win this next match-up.
This will be the Patriots' third straight Saturday game after wins on the road in New York on Saturday, December 20th and at home against the Bills on Saturday, December 27th.
A win on Saturday night would be the Patriots' 13th in a row. After winning 12 straight, winning the next one is always difficult. While the sample size of 12-win teams is too small to draw conclusions about the chance of success in that next, 13th game, there are some interesting trends.
According to research at patriots.com, teams with at least a five-game winning streak win 63% of the time in the next game out. Teams winning six in-a-row win their 7th at a 65% clip; teams with seven in-a-row get their 8th win 64% of the time; eight in-a-row hits 64% of the time on the 9th try; and nine in-a-row wins 61% on their 10th try.
The numbers worsen at 12, though. Teams that have won 12 straight have just a 27% win rate in that 13th game (4 wins, 11 losses). But these numbers encompass winning streaks that carry over season-to-season; the Patriots' run is the 2nd longest winning streak in a single season in NFL history.
Further, the trend numbers do not take into account the fact that the Patriots had the bye week last week and are well-rested. This upcoming game stands alone. And the home team in the divisional playoff round has a win rate of about 82%.
One final statistic: teams that have won 13 in a row or more won their 14th every time (4 wins and no losses). Thus, if New England gets by the Titans, the numbers are on their side for continued success.
Considering just franchise history, the Patriots are looking for their 5th straight home playoff win. They have won the last four at home – most recently they beat Oakland following the 2001 season on their way to the Super Bowl. Before that, they topped the Miami Dolphins in the wild card round of the 1997 season (before a road loss at Pittsburgh). The Patriots had two home wins on the way to their Super Bowl appearance after the 1996 season: a win against Pittsburgh in the divisional round followed by a victory in the AFC Championship game against Jacksonville.
To be fair, the Patriots have only had 5 home playoff games ever, but the four straight wins are important for two reasons: one, the wins have been in recent history. Two, and more importantly for the fans, it shows just how rare, and how special, these home playoff games are. These are the glory days for Patriots Nation and we are living through them – it is something to appreciate and thoroughly enjoy. Just make sure to stay warm.