By: Bob George/
December 31, 2006

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This feels a lot better than the Patriots making like it's August.

Playing hard all game long, the Patriots marched into LP Field here in Nashville and outslugged the Tennessee Titans in a hard-hitting contest on Sunday, 40-23. This game turned out to be quite testy, given the high number of personal foul penalties called and Tennessee needing to win to have any shot at the playoffs. The Titans were officially eliminated from the playoffs when Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati in overtime, but they were feisty up to the end, to the degree that the Patriots scored a last second touchdown when kneel-downs were in order.

Miami nearly made the Patriot effort worth more than they bargained for, playing Indianapolis tough to the end before finally losing, 27-22, giving the three seed to the Colts. With Denver being upset at home in overtime by San Francisco, 26-23, the Patriots get a super grudge match with the Jets at home next weekend instead of having to deal with an unbeatable Bronco team which knocked them from the playoffs last year. Suffice it to say that there will be plenty of Eric Mangini dartboards up soon all over the Patriot locker room.

Tom Brady figured to only play one series of downs, but instead played all the way into the fourth quarter. He showed opposite number Vince Young how it's really done, with a terrific effort (15 of 24, 225 yards, 107.1 passer rating) and a 62-yard touchdown bomb to Reche Caldwell (who finished with 134 receiving yards) in the third quarter. Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney provided the one-two rushing punch needed for a long run in the playoffs, with 67 and 73 yards rushing respectively. Asante Samuel picked off two Young passes to give him ten interceptions for the season, which leads the NFL. Samuel becomes only the second player in Patriot history to have ten or more picks, finishing one behind Ron Hall, who picked off a team-record 11 passes in 1964.

Still, this game will be defined more for the Patriots going for the win versus the rest, and battling the tough Titans to the finish. Young's passing numbers were weak (15 of 36, 227 yards, 2 picks, a 39.9 passer rating), but he had a 29-yard touchdown run and showed everyone glimpses of the great player he projects to be in this league. Pacman Jones ran a punt back 81 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Former Buffalo running back Travis Henry had 102 yards rushing on 21 carries. The Patriots never really got separation from the Titans until the final moments of the game.

Thanks largely in part to truculent linebacker Keith Bulluck, who probably still can't believe the Patriots beat his Titans in the frigid 2003 playoff game, Tennessee came out with a chip on their shoulder and at times brought out frequent lapses in poise from the Patriots. On one drive alone in the third quarter, the Titans drove 68 yards for a field goal, 45 of those yards coming on three Patriot personal foul penalties. Bulluck fired his team up in pregame by imploring his teammates to try and injure Maroney (who was playing with sore ribs), which more or less defined the attitude of the Titans all game long. The Patriots were penalized nine times for 129 yards.

But Ed Hochuli's officiating crew called the game tight. The Titans themselves were penalized ten times for 119 yards. Each team was the victim of a pass interference call which resulted in gains of 30 or more yards. Each side was called once for roughing the passer. Bulluck himself was called for taunting late in the contest.

Bulluck's taunt may have been the linchpin for what happened next. With 1:58 to go and the Patriots at the Tennessee 6 and with the Titans out of timeouts, the Patriots figured to take three kneeldowns leading at the time, 33-23. But Vinny Testaverde, who had come into the game after Matt Cassel played two offensive series, threw a touchdown pass to Troy Brown as the Tennessee home crowd booed in disgust.

The play was significant in that Testaverde now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 20 straight NFL seasons, but it is a gesture you rarely, if never, see Bill Belichick do. Belichick usually knows better than to torque off an opponent with needless scoring. Despite the personal distinction gained by Testaverde, it is unlikely Belichick would have allowed this to happen if this game hadn't been so chippy.

By winning the way they did, on the road against a feisty opponent who had to win to have any shot at making the playoffs, the Patriots gave themselves much needed momentum going into the playoffs against the Jets. They sent a message to everyone else they might play in the postseason, saying that they are ready to take on all comers. The Patriots were expected by many to be chewed up and spit out by Young, even if they tried to go all out and win.

Except for some flashes of brilliance, the Patriots did a number on Young. Even with Rodney Harrison knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a leg injury (he did leave the field under his own power, but the Patriots will naturally say nothing more about his injury) thanks to a low block by receiver Bobby Wade, the Patriot defense was able to confuse Young, put pressure on him, contain the outside scramble lanes, and expose his rookie flaws. Young made some bad decisions at times, but did show his incredible athletic ability in his long touchdown run and a wacky hook throw in the first quarter which almost went as a touchdown pass to Ben Hartsock.

One area where the Patriots may still be concerned is lack of good tackling technique at some points in the game. On Young's touchdown gallop, Richard Seymour, Eric Alexander and Tedy Bruschi all missed tackles. On Jones' long punt return for a score, reserve cornerback Eric King screened off two or three potential tacklers by just standing there and letting the play go on around him. Henry had runs of 25 and 33 yards in a second quarter drive which ended in a Rob Baronas missed 33-yard field goal attempt, with both runs coming inside the tackles and right at the heart of the Patriot defense.

What should help the Patriots greatly in the postseason is the running game. Both Dillon and Maroney averaged 5.6 yards per carry. Dillon got a lot of the tough yards in the fourth quarter he has become famous for, ripped off a 21-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and also hauled in a 52-yard screen pass on the second offensive possession for the Patriots. Maroney peeled off a 31-yard run in the fourth quarter, preceding a one-yard blast to put the Patriots up late, 33-23.

So now the Patriots get ready for the Jets, when everyone across the Nation was expecting a rematch with the Broncos. If the lousy grass surface was the main reason the Patriots lost back in November to the New Yorkers, that won't be a problem this time around. It should be a great game, with a Red Sox-Yankees flavor to the occasion.

And a week from now, it may turn out that you will be happy that the Patriots played to win against Tennessee instead of playing to rest the starters.