New England vs. Tennessee in the AFC Divisional Playoff. Not exactly what you expected?
The easy explanation as to 'why' it will be the Titans in Foxboro Saturday night, and not Kansas City or Buffalo would be because 'it's why they play the games.' You simply just don't know how things will turn out beforehand, regardless of what you think you know, or the relative strength of the opposition.
And that's precisely why, before cementing the Patriots - and let's say, the Steelers - into the AFC title game, you've got to give the Titans, or at least Tennesseans their due.
If you've never traveled through the state, Tennessee has memorable, beautiful scenery. You can stand where true Civil War heroes (on both sides) once stood, and feel the past very much within the present. You can travel the Tennessee Music Highway to feel the soul of a state that is steeped in musical history, especially in the Titans' hometown of Nashville, where country music giants have long had a larger-than-life presence.
You can also taste the soul of this state in Memphis, Knoxville and all points around and in-between, where the dry-rubbed barbeque ribs are unmatched in almost every culinary corner of the globe.
Within the realm of the National Football League, Tennessee's history isn't quite as glorious or fabled. Or even as tasty. The franchise was once incarnated as the Houston Oilers - born in 1960 as an original AFL franchise (along with the Patriots) before owner Bud Adams decided Nashville, Tennessee would provide more opportunity after the 1996 season.
In the 21 seasons since relocation, the Titans haven't exactly been the behemoths of the gridiron they had hoped to become. They have reached one Super Bowl (XXXIV), falling a yard short of possible immortality in 2000 to the then-St. Louis Rams. The Titans have three division titles, six playoff appearances (including a frigid loss to New England in '04) and have finished as high as 13-3 on three separate occasions.
In 21 years? Not exactly dominant, or even titanic, are they?
The reality is, the Titans are a team that hasn't achieved as they once might have hoped. They have nine winning seasons in Nashville (counting this years' 9-7 squad) and eight losing seasons, including four-in-a-row and five-out-of-six losing campaigns in this decade alone.
It's fair to say Tennessee's football fortunes have undoubtedly disappointed the football gods. And their fans, too. It's been hard to Remember the Titans much at all during their two-decades of Tennessee history.
Which is why - despite the mediocre nature and record, despite a fortunate 22-21 Wild Card win over Kansas City - the current Titans could be considered special. Not much is expected of them. They just engineered the largest road-playoff comeback (down by 18 points in the second half) in more than 60 years.
The Patriots know about playoff comebacks. But coming into Foxboro as a double-digit underdog?
It makes them impractically dangerous. They should arrive, genuflect, bow down to the true gridiron gods-in-residence and take their lumps. Right? Move out of the way quickly, so as not to upset the one, true titanic match-up the football world waits for - New England and Pittsburgh - in the AFC Championship.
Anything else, would be unexpected. And that's precisely what these Titans hope to be remembered for.
Officially, more questions than answers
If you watched the Titans' win over Kansas City, you probably saw a second-half running game that pounded the Chiefs into eventual submission. You probably also saw a KC offense that withered on the vine once TE Travis Kelce left the lineup with a concussion.
Oh, and let's not forget a touchdown reception by Marcus Mariota, the quarterback-turned-receiver who originally threw the pass. That's one you might see once or twice in a lifetime. The last one occurred in 1997.
But if you are one of those who feel like the Titans may have been helped by the winds of the football gods, coming from the officials, you could be onto something. Jeff Triplette's crew didn't decide the outcome, but it appears at least some of their decisions played a major role in Tennessee's travel plans northward this week.
Of note - there was a forward-progress ruling on a Marcus Mariota sack during a two-point conversion play where Mariota never went forward. He fumbled on the play and the ball was returned by the Chiefs for two points of their own, except the whistle blew the play dead. No two points for the defense. KC lost by one point.
Chiefs' linebacker Derrick Johnson sacked Mariota late in the first half, and replays showed Mariota lost the ball before hitting the ground with Kansas City recovering. Yet Triplette ruled forward progress had been stopped (?) before the ball was out, therefore the play was not reviewable.
And on the other side, Triplette and crew missed a 3rd down spot of the ball by three yards, costing Tennessee a challenge in this instance.
Former NFL official and head of officiating Mike Pereira tweeted this after the outcome had been decided in Kansas City:
"Horrible way to start the playoffs. I hate to say it but this was not a good performance by the crew. Teams and fans deserve better."
On top of this, Triplette reportedly retired after the game was over after more than two decades working in the NFL. Was he embarrassed by his performance, enough to decide "that's it, I'm out?"
He should have been. The NFL should be embarrassed right along with him.
More hankies on the field
Ok, so the Tennessee-Kansas City game had some, uh, head-scratchers by the zebras.
There were equal-opportunity missteps in New Orleans, too, with the Carolina Panthers singing most of those blues.
The crew in the Superdome was led by Tony Corrente, and by most accounts they performed admirably throughout - since you weren't aware it was a Corrente crew to begin with. That's a good thing, when you don't notice the officials.
Until the end, however...with the game on the line. At the two-minute warning, the Saints attempted to ice the game on a 4th-and-two attempt near midfield, leading 31-26. Drew Brees promptly threw an interception to Mike Adams, who probably should have just knocked the ball away. The pick ended up giving the Panthers the ball at their 31, 16 yards further back than the original line of scrimmage.
Except that upon further review, Adams never had control of the ball and he failed to 'complete the catch.' Apparently, that term is only suitable for offensive players? The play wasn't reviewed, even though ALL turnovers should be reviewed in the last two minutes.
On the ensuing drive following the pick, Panthers' QB Cam Newton was called - late - for intentional grounding, even though it appeared he remained in his pocket (defined by being inside of the two offensive tackles) before throwing the ball away. Grounding was the call, even though it was apparent the crew was arguing against making the call with Corrente.
Never mind. The call stood. But the Saints' sideline had to (vehemently) remind Corrente there was also a :10 second run-off with the penalty occurring in the last two minutes of the half. That almost-missed run-off gave the Panthers just :24 seconds to find the end zone. They didn't.
New Orleans had its defensive stand. Carolina started its off-season earlier than they expected. And the officials get another black mark in a big game. A playoff game, too.
You can make the argument that sometimes, player and coaching decisions on potential big plays fall short of "the moment." A lack of execution, or a lack of thinking things through is usually why these "fails" happen.
But when the officials get in the way of an exciting (or even clean) finish by making poor (or wrong) choices? It's time for the league to re-examine all things when it comes to the referees. The NFL's foundation of parity means close contests should be the rule, rather than the exception.
But often it appears the NFL (or the head referee) isn't equipped to handle this kind of pressure. Simplify the rulebook, lessen the potential for screw-ups. And head-scratching.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is in his 25th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 30 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.