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The Patriots’ path back to the Super Bowl just got more complicated

The Titans got the best of Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday in Nashville. (Mark Zaleski/AP)

The New England Patriots went to their Nashville bureau Sunday and suffered a stunning — and stunningly lopsided — defeat that might have some significant implications for their bid to reach another Super Bowl.

The Patriots fell to the Titans, 34-10, to end their winning streak at six games and drop their record to 7-3. That’s significant because it pushes the Patriots two games behind the Kansas City Chiefs, who beat the Arizona Cardinals to improve their mark to 9-1, in the chase for the top seed in the AFC playoffs.

Suddenly, the Patriots find themselves in a tight race with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Houston Texans for the AFC’s No. 2 seed and the first-round postseason bye that comes with it. The path to another Super Bowl is becoming ever more complicated.

Home-field advantage during the postseason matters quite a bit in this case. The Patriots are practically unbeatable in the playoffs in Foxborough, Mass. It probably would matter little just how good quarterback Patrick Mahomes is and just how revved-up the Kansas City offense can be, if indeed the Chiefs would be forced to go to New England to win during the postseason. But playing in Kansas City would be a far different matter.

The Patriots, until Sunday, had made their 1-2 start to this season a distant memory. They’d beaten the Chiefs to seemingly reassert their AFC dominance and give themselves the tiebreaker advantage for the No. 1 seed, should the two teams finish with identical records. Brady was back to playing like the greatest quarterback ever. The addition of Josh Gordon had addressed the need at wide receiver, and the Patriots appeared well on their way to turning another 1-2 start into a Super Bowl appearance, as they’ve done with regularity in the past.

But then they ran into the Titans and all those familiar faces. The Titans have been constructed by Jon Robinson, a former Patriots executive. They are coached by Mike Vrabel, a former Patriots linebacker. Their roster includes former Patriots players such as running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler.

And they were a step ahead of the Patriots all day Sunday.

The Titans used a long return on the opening kickoff to set up a first-drive touchdown. They raced to a 17-3 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, building off their victory Monday night at Dallas.

Quarterback Tom Brady looked out of sorts all day, connecting on only 21 of 41 passes. He didn’t even finish the game, with Coach Bill Belichick waving the flag of surrender by going to backup Brian Hoyer during the fourth quarter.

Even when Brady made a catch on a trick play, he stumbled and fell to the turf shy of a first down, leading to a failed fourth-down conversion attempt. The Titans one-upped that with a trick-play reception by their quarterback, Marcus Mariota. Tennessee scored a wildcat-formation touchdown.

The student beat the master, with Vrabel besting Belichick just as former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, now the head coach of the Detroit Lions, beat Belichick in Week 3.

For the third time in four games, the Patriots played without tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been hampered by back and ankle injuries. Wide receiver Julian Edelman left the game, reportedly to have his foot or ankle examined. Gordon, playing after suffering a dislocated finger, saw a pass or two slip from his grasp.

The Patriots now go on their bye week and have time to regroup. Getting Gronkowski healthy and back in the lineup is key. The severity of Edelman’s injury must be determined. Gordon has appeared capable of being a major asset if his finger injury does not prevent him from catching the ball consistently.

The Patriots are not done. Far from it. They can go on the road and win during the playoffs if needed. But Sunday’s setback was considerable. If the Patriots end up having to go to Kansas City during the postseason and lose there, remember the part that Vrabel and the Titans played in the undoing of what could be the last stand for Brady, Belichick and this New England dynasty.

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