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December 30, 2006
The Question: To Play Or Not To Play
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It would be much more fun if, say for example, the Patriots could clinch a first round bye with a win.

Instead, the Patriots are faced with a meaningless season finale in Tennessee. It?s actually only meaningless if Indianapolis wins its finale at home against Miami, 13-10 losers at home to the Jets on Christmas night. Should the Colts stumble at home and the Patriots win, the Patriots would move up to the three seed and likely avoid a first round battle with Denver. Since both games are at the same time, the Patriots won?t really know as the game goes along, unless Miami blows out the Colts and the Patriots have time to put their first string (back) in.

Maybe it?s a good thing the game is virtually meaningless. The Titans have been a tough matchup for the Patriots in their last several meetings, going back to 2002 and one of the worst showings the Patriots have ever had on Monday Night Football. Since the team ceased to be known as the Houston Oilers, the Patriots are 3-1 against Tennessee (playoffs included), the one loss being that 24-7 spanking the Titans laid on the Patriots on the penultimate game of the season in 2002 on a Monday night. That one loss was the only other appearance the Patriots have made here at LP Field (in 2002 the stadium was named after Adelphia), and it could be another painful experience for the Patriots in 2006.

The wins the Patriots have had over Jeff Fisher?s teams have been very tough wins. There was the 38-30 barnburner in 2003 which was win number one of the 21-game win streak. Later that season, the Patriots squeezed out a 17-14 Divisional round playoff win played in Arctic conditions at Gillette Stadium. Both of these wins over a Titan team which would go 12-4 in 2003 were more like survival tests, a tribute to Fisher?s longevity and the great program he has cultivated in his 13 seasons as head coach.

This year, the Patriots have an interesting quandary at hand. Do they rest their regulars and use the game as a tuneup for what likely will be still another game with Denver, who has become what Miami was at the Orange Bowl in the1970s and 1980s, or should they keep their winning edge and play hard, taking that momentum into the playoffs? The Patriots could be darned if they do and darned if they don?t if Denver plays like they always do against the Patriots, but whatever edge the Patriots can get against Denver might take root in what they do Sunday against the Titans.

When it comes right down to it, all the Patriots really have to do is worry about rookie Vince Young, who has been completely as advertised during this six-game win streak the Titans are currently on. The Titans have former Buffalo back Travis Henry (listed as questionable on the injury list), former Jet center Kevin Mawae and wideout Drew Bennett (David Givens is on injured reserve). Other than that, the entire Titan team is all about the former Texas Longhorn quarterback, who roughly a year ago at this time was leading Texas to a national championship over USC in the Rose Bowl.

Young is suddenly catching on with the NFL game. He is showing a great deal of poise to go along with his outstanding run skills. His delivery is as quick as Dan Marino and a sidearm like Bernie Kozar, but he throws a laser and can hit his targets as good as any of them. And his run skills? Just ask the Houston Texans, as evidenced by that 39-yard touchdown run three weeks ago.

But the Patriots will be able to put points on the board against Tennessee. Other than lineman Albert Haynesworth (suspended earlier this season for that foot in the face of Dallas? Andre Gurode), loudmouth linebacker Keith Bulluck and cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones, you won?t see much for talent on this Titan defense. The thing is, who will be putting the points on the board for the Patriots, Tom Brady or Matt Cassel? Or, pray tell, Vinny Testaverde?

Brady is still recovering from a nasty shot in the back he took from Clint Ingram last week at Jacksonville. He didn?t practice with the team until Friday. Brady may come in just long enough to keep his consecutive game start streak going and then give way to Cassel, who could pick up some valuable game experience here. Cassel, who played extensively in last year?s finale against Miami (and played well in defeat), could claim a very important role if Brady is either more injured than we think or if Brady continues to take lots of hard hits as he has done all season long.

Other Patriots could be rested, and perhaps for the entire game. Benjamin Watson and Vince Wilfork likely won?t see action, and possibly Rodney Harrison (though he did seem like his old self last week at Jacksonville) and maybe Richard Seymour. The Patriots do need to be careful on defense and not make it too easy on Young, as reserve linemen Mike Wright and Marquise Hill are also listed as questionable.

The Patriots could very well treat this game as an August game and let Cassel fly with a varsity level game plan. Bill Belichick may also want to be careful and not give Denver too much to game plan for (not that they would need that much of an edge), but Cassel ought to be given as much as he can handle so that the Patriots can get a better idea of what he can do should Brady become incapacitated some day. Brady can take one or two snaps and hand off to a running back to keep his streak going, and get back on the sidelines and out of harm?s way.

Now, what if the unthinkable happens and it becomes known that Miami is comfortably ahead of Indianapolis and the Patriots are at least close to the Titans? Then what?

Both Denver and the Jets are in ?win and in? situations for the Wild Card. Neither should fail, as Denver has San Francisco at home and the Jets have Oakland. Oakland will give the Jets zero problems; the 49ers could give the Broncos a good game but the home team should still prevail. If these scores hold up, the Patriots would draw the Jets at home instead of Denver should they move up to the three seed. Belichick would then be faced with a decision to ?go for the win hard? or to just take their chances with Denver if they simply cannot win the game with the ?B? team out there.

As for the Titans, they have much more incentive to play hard than the Patriots. For them to make the playoffs, they need to beat the Patriots, then get a ton of help. With a win, the Titans would then need all of these three things to happen: a Denver loss, a Jacksonville loss and Cincinnati loss or tie. The only one of these games going in favor of the Titans is perhaps Kansas City beating Jacksonville. To a man, the Titans should know that these odds are long, but that won?t deter them from wanting to beat the tar out of the Patriots.

Your mindset for Sunday? Hope that no Patriot starter gets killed and cheer like crazy for Mike Nolan?s gang to play the game of their lives at Invesco Field.


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