By: Bob George/
December 14, 2002

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Welcome to Al Gore Country, Patriot Nation.

The liberal slant to the media is as evident as the sounds of shotgun blasts if some stranger climbs up Rocky Top. The estimable Paul Harvey once said "You know, friends, we would never be having this hassle with the (2000 Presidential) election…if only…Al Gore had managed…to win his home state." Network news anchors smiled as they declared Gore the winner, then frowned when they declared George W. Bush the winner, then looked like they had egg on their faces when they threw their hands up and said they simply didn't know.

The Patriots have been to the Volunteer State before. In 1982, the Patriots came to Knoxville to play an exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in U-T's huge Neyland Stadium. They make their return to the land of hillbillies, Smoky Mountains and eleven electoral votes for Dubya on Monday night, as the Patriots take their second annual Super Bowl Run The Table Show to The Coliseum (did the folks at CMGi take over Adelphia or something?) in a huge matchup against the former Houston Oilers.

You can make all the jokes you want about Jethro Clampett, moonshine and the former Vice President, as well as decrying a puzzling franchise transfer from a huge city to a small city. You can also make whimsy of this game as being "titanic". But the bottom line of this game is that it is two 8-5 teams who are both hot and who both need to win this game.

Actually, the Titans need this game more than the Patriots do. Some sportswriters out there with absolutely no life whatsoever concocted about 25 scenarios where the Patriots still win the AFC East if they lose Monday night. Tennessee, on the other hand, is locked in a death struggle with Indianapolis for the AFC South lead. Whereas the Patriots control their own destiny for a two seed in the playoffs, Tennessee needs more to win down the stretch.

This game, against a relatively unfamiliar opponent on a stage in which the Patriots have often struggled mightily, could present problems for the Patriots. The Titans aren't as invincible at home as they were during their Super Bowl year (two years ago, coming up one yard short against the Rams), and their top defensive player is expected back for this game despite likely seeing only limited action. But Tennessee has weapons that can wreak havoc on the Patriots if they don't bring their "A" game to Music City Monday night.

The last time these two teams met was in 1998, when they were the Tennessee Oilers. The Patriots pounded out a 27-16 win at Foxborough Stadium. Both Steve McNair and Eddie George were around back then, so the Patriots can at least say that they have faced these two men in the past. George was in the fourth of five straight years of gaining at least 1,290 yards a season, and the entire Titan team (in the last year of being called the Oilers) were one year away from that Super Bowl run of theirs.

But the Patriots have never seen Jevon "The Freak" Kearse. Kearse exploded on the scene in 1999 and recorded 14.5 sacks in leading the Titans to the brink of a Vince. Kearse, however, has been out all year because of a foot injury. Kearse is listed as questionable for Monday night's game, but is not expected to be 100 percent. Reports also indicate that due to the nature of the injury, Kearse will play only at left defensive end and not shift to right end. That means Kearse will draw Kenyatta Jones, and not the slower Matt Light. That matchup might favor the Patriots if the injury reports are correct.

One other thing that could help the Patriots on Monday night is the fact that one of McNair's weapons, Kevin Dyson, is out with a hamstring injury. Playing in his place will be Erron Kinney, who will be lined up with Derrick Mason at the wideouts. The Titans still have Frank Wycheck, he of the Music City Miracle and a dependable tight end.

McNair himself has been an interesting story the past few weeks. McNair himself is listed as questionable with a toe injury, and has gained a bit of notoriety for not practicing but playing well on Sundays. Under Bill Belichick's system, McNair would likely be on the bench. But McNair seems to be setting practices back fifty years with his odd approach to his injury.

After starting off 1-4, the Titans have reeled off seven wins in their last eight games to crawl back into the thick of things in the AFC. They would win a tiebreaker with Indianapolis due to a season sweep of the Colts. The Titans finish the season with road games at Jacksonville and Houston, whereas the Patriots' last two games are at home with the Jets and Dolphins. Whereas the Titans would have the inside track to the division title, the Colts have it a little easier with a road game at Cleveland and home games against the Giants and Jacksonville. This helps explain why this game means more to the Titans than the Patriots.

But the Patriots will certainly not wilt, not with the shot at a one seed at stake. This is what will make Monday night's game a great one, and why the Patriots should come at the Titans with everything they've got.

Patriot Nation should root like crazy for Miami to defeat Oakland at home this weekend. If Oakland loses two of their last three games, and if San Diego loses one of their last three, the Patriots claim the top seed in the AFC if they win out. The Raiders are at Miami, then at home against Denver and Kansas City. Denver would be primed for an upset after being embarrassed by the Raiders at home a few Monday nights back, and Kansas City is a long time Raider rival. As for the Chargers, the Bills could easily knock off the Bolts on Sunday in Buffalo. If not them, the Chiefs could do so at home the following week.

In that scenario, the Patriots would be the only 11-5 team anywhere except the AFC South. The Patriots would then win a tiebreaker with Indianapolis based upon common opponents, and the road to Super Bowl XXXVII would thus go through the Boston Post Road. Of course, some sourpuss could bring up the lousy record of the one seed the last few years in the AFC (how'd Pittsburgh do last year, folks?). But if you asked the Patriots to defend their AFC crown at home or at Oakland, you don't have to be a brain surgeon to find the answer.

That is why the Patriots will play extra hard Monday night, and not wilt under the bright lights of Monday Night Football. With McNair and Kearse hurting and Dyson out, the Patriots will only have to show enough poise to win on the national stage, as well as winning in a stadium that is very tough on visitors.

The biggest no-show for the Patriots could be Tedy Bruschi, listed as doubtful for the game due to his knee. Joe Andruzzi is questionable, also because of a knee ailment. Ted Johnson looms large in this game, with containing George at the top of his priority list. Confusing McNair will be at the top of Belichick's priority list.

As for Patriot Nation, they have to wait that one extra day for their faves to play. Playing on Monday Night Football isn't always all it's cracked up to be. But if Tom Brady once again gets on that silly horse trailer of theirs, chances are the New England region will be all smiles on Tuesday morning.

And the good people of Tennessee will be heading back to their stills for some more corn whiskey, moonshine or white lightning. Here's hopin' they need a heapin' helpin' of that stuff when this game's over.