By: Bob George/
December 16, 2002

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Steve McNair looked like a Sherman tank, while Tom Brady was generally invisible and forgettable. The Titans' offensive line was primed for a gang rumble, while the Patriot offensive line was primed more for a crumble. The Titans made the most of when they had the ball and got the job done despite a lack of gaudy stats, while the Patriots committed several damaging mistakes which greatly tarnished their image as defending champs.

Kissing any realistic shot at a one seed goodbye, the Patriots must now focus their attention on trying to eke out a division title. Whereas their season is not by any means in shambles, the Titans showed the Patriots that this is definitely not 2001, and that things will be different this year for the pride of the northeast. The Patriots were completely humbled, 24-7, and portrayed themselves as weak buffoons on a national stage which has often been unkind to them over the years.

It will be hard for Patriot Nation to regain any sense of swagger, never mind the players themselves. Except for the opening drive of the second half, the Patriots were beaten up and dominated physically, and did not show much of anything resembling a team trying to defend a Super Bowl title. The hard part is trying to imagine how well the Patriots will fare in the playoffs when they run up against teams better than the Titans.

It is hard to believe that the Patriots allowed the Titans to dominate them so. While not a weak sister and three years removed from a trip to Super Bowl XXXIV, the Titans are a shell of their old selves. Instead of rising up to the occasion and at least winning a close, tight contest with the Tenneseeans, McNair was literally a one-man wrecking crew in the first half, and Eddie George was much the same in the second half.

The key stats that really tell the story of this game were time of possession and team rushing yard totals. In these two areas, the Titans blew the Patriots off the map, and the margins carried them to victory. Behind these stats is the real key to winning, that key being total physical domination of the Patriots. The Titans knocked the Patriots silly all night long, dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage, and reducing the Patriots to pushover status.

Leading by example was McNair, who was playing despite nursing a toe injury for most of the season and limiting his practice time. McNair rushed for 49 yards on six carries, and the Patriots had no containment whatsoever on him. Not that it would have mattered, because no Patriot seemed able to tackle the powerful McNair.

McNair broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter with an eleven-yard touchdown run. McNair scrambled up the middle through a huge hole, then cut left. Tebucky Jones was right there, but McNair ran right through the supposed headache maker. McNair then cut back towards the end zone, and plowed over Ty Law at the goal line as if Law were a lifeless tackling dummy. Law was sent sprawling as if he had just been hit by a Mack truck.

This one play set the tone for the entire rest of the evening. The Titans outhit the Patriots, and McNair was hitting harder than them all. The quarterback was laying the biggest sticks. What chance did the Patriots have in this game?

On their next possession, McNair once again found a huge lane up the middle. McNair ran through the Patriot defense for a 24-yard scramble before sliding in front of Law at the Patriot 29. One has to wonder why McNair didn't simply try to blast Law, since he did just that a few minutes ago. McNair finished this drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge on fourth and goal.

George and Robert Holcombe took up the slack in the second half. Behind crunching blocks amidst defenders who could do nothing to stop them, both men ripped off long runs in the second half (Holcombe also broke one off for 39 yards on the opening drive). Holcombe averaged over ten rushing yards per carry, and George finished with 102 yards rushing. The Titans outgained the Patriots on the ground, 234-50. The physical offensive line of the Titans simply opened up holes, and George and Holcombe found passable running lanes with ease all evening long.

Time of possession was another slamdunk for the Titans. The Titans held the ball for a whopping 41:30, and their rushing domination was the biggest reason why. The Patriot defense simply could not get their offense on the field all the while it was being pushed and shoved around by the Titans. The Titans had three drives of 12 or more plays, and these drives produced 17 points.

Despite this domination, two killer turnovers proved to be mortal blows for the Patriots. The Titans had the Patriots cold in every way imaginable, but the Patriots could have been even at the half and close in the third quarter but for two costly turnovers that permanently turned the tide towards the home team.

Leading 7-0, the Titans were driving from their own 20. Facing third down and four at the 26, McNair threw an ill-advised pass into coverage. Terrell Buckley stepped up in front of Derrick Mason and picked the ball off. He ran five yards to the Titan 42, but foolishly did not tuck the ball away. Holcombe hit Buckley just before he hit the ground, and the ball popped loose. Holcombe fell on the ball, and the Titans proceeded to march all the way to a one-yard touchdown run by McNair.

This play spoke volumes about the difference between the 2001 Patriots and the 2002 Patriots. There is no way the Patriots make this kind of blunder last year. Buckley, who was a member of the team last year, who made a key interception against the Jets in December and recovered a Ricky Proehl fumble in the Super Bowl, may have scuttled his team's playoff hopes with this one horrid play this year. This play turned the game sharply in Tennessee's favor, and took away the one real chance the Patriots had to seize momentum in the game. Buckley, who has generally had a subpar year, wears huge goat horns thanks to this unspeakable fumble.

Brady led off the second half with a touchdown drive that was more aided by two questionable penalties than being something special. Thanks in part to those penalties, Brady was able to score on a ten-yard sneak. When the Patriots got the ball back, on the first play Brady looked for David Patten on a quick slant in. The ball glanced off Patten's hands, bounced up in the air, and fell into the arms of backup safety Richard Coady. Coady took it for 24 yards and a touchdown. It was 21-7, and school was out.

While this pick really wasn't Brady's fault, Brady had a subpar night. And that wasn't even Brady's fault either, given that he hardly got to touch the football, and when he did, he had barely any time to throw. Minus Jevon Kearse for most of the evening, the Titans still managed to put pressure on Brady all night long. Brady suffered two sacks, and never found a rhythm. He finished sub-.500 in passing (14 of 29) for the evening.

All in all, this loss tastes like castor oil to all who swear allegiance to the Patriots. The team was literally expected to run the table after falling to 5-5, and that won't happen this year. It was like everyone assumed 11-5 was a given.

The Titans took it to the Patriots, and played with more hunger and desire. Stats are stats, but in this case, you could have left graphics and notes completely out of this game and anyone would have seen that the Titans had this one in the bag almost from the start.

The only thing the Patriots have a bag on is this season, if they don't recover quickly. What licking they got tonight will be nothing compared to what Curtis Martin will do to them next Sunday night.

Right now, the Patriots look as un-champion as it gets.

But this is the AFC. Tomorrow is another day.