Away with the 10-6 pretenders. Now it's really down to business.
The Patriots now finally know who their first 2003 playoff opponent will be. It will be the team which the Patriots launched their twelve-game win streak against. It will be the team who geared up to stop Antowain Smith and in the end could not stop Mike Cloud. It will be the team who came to Foxborough on a day where the Gillette Stadium crowd had their bodies in their seats but their heads at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox were evening their ALDS with Oakland at two games apiece with a pulsating 5-4 victory.
Thanks to the Red Sox, many Foxborough faithful perhaps didn't notice or pay attention to how the Patriots managed to edge the Titans in a shootout, 38-30. Patriot Nation will notice this time, as not even the Alex Rodriguez situation should get in the way of anyone's conscious or subconscious on Saturday night. The matchup is finally set, and now Bill Belichick can proceed full speed ahead without having to worry about Clinton Portis or anyone named Lewis.
And, except for short-sighted, ignorant national pundits or local scribes with vendettas against Bill Belichick, most everyone believes that the Patriots stand a good chance of moving on to the AFC Championship Game, which they will host if they can defeat Tennessee for the second time this year. Winning the game won't be easy, and nothing is guaranteed just because the Patriots are at home and everyone including CBS executives are praying for a blizzard. The Titans are a formidable foe, but the Patriots are even better equipped to stop this team than they were back in October, and certainly better equipped to deal with them than they were on that horrid Monday night last December.
Before we look into this upcoming game, let us quickly review how this game came about.
Tennessee staked its claim to this weekend thanks to a 17-10 win on the road at Baltimore on Saturday. Despite injuries to Steve McNair, Eddie George and Jevon Kearse, the Titans were still able to overcome a powerful but unintelligent Raven squad who could very well have chewed Tennessee up and spit them out. Led by all-world linebacker Ray Lewis, the Raven defense put the clamps on the Tennessee offense and put a hurting on the offensive stars of the Titans. But in the end, it was offensive stupidity that lost the game for the Ravens.
Whoever calls the offensive plays for the Ravens, be it head coach Brian Billick or offensive coordinator (and Steve Grogan's former backup) Matt Cavanaugh, blew this game right from the get-go. Trying to win the game with Anthony Wright instead of Jamal Lewis was right down there with Grady Little leaving in Pedro Martinez too long. From the very first play, where the Ravens ran a play fake to Lewis and Wright threw an incompletion, Baltimore missed a chance to seize the early momentum and establish perhaps the most potent offensive weapon in the game. Had Lewis been able to get into a rhythm and gash an otherwise outstanding Titan run defense, the Ravens would be heading to Foxborough.
Now that Lewis and Lewis will not be heading to Foxborough (breathe easy, Patriot Nation), it was time for Denver and Indianapolis to take center stage in the AFC. And on Sunday, the Colts exacted sweet revenge on the obviously-not-ready-to-play Broncos, winning 41-10 in a game that was over early in the second quarter. Portis was never allowed to become a factor, as Peyton Manning is now the most potent offensive weapon in the AFC (and not Lewis). Marvin Harrison scored a touchdown on the signature play of the game; after falling down from making a catch, three Denver defenders argued over who blew the coverage, but no one touched him down. Harrison got up and raced the final 20 yards for a touchdown. Those three players may still be arguing.
So now Portis won't darken Gilette's gates (again, let's make with the sighs of relief). Baltimore is out, Denver is out. These are two teams who could have given the Patriots a great deal of fits, the former if and only if Jamal Lewis could not be stopped. The Patriots now get the Titans, a hot team, a very good team, but a team which Belichick and his team can deal with if they play sound Patriot football and avoid injuries.
Ironically, injuries played a key role in the first meeting between these two teams. Because of so many linebacker injuries, the Patriots had to play a 4-3 defense. Ty Warren and Jarvis Green started on the line, and Matt Chatham started at outside linebacker while Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin nursed injuries. Kearse was hurt himself, and made his first start of the season in this game. Frank Wycheck and Albert Haynesworth were Titan scratches in the first meeting.
The game was pretty much a battle of teams exchanging scores, with neither team getting a big lead and blowing it. The Titans at one time held a 6-0 lead, and the Patriots' biggest lead was 38-27. Tom Brady had a satisfactory day for the Patriots, making no mistakes, firing one touchdown pass and earning 88 passer rating points.
The Patriots' two keys to victory were the running game and forcing the Titan offense to settle for five field goals. The only Tennessee touchdowns were on one-yard runs by McNair, who bludgeoned the Patriots in the 24-6 Monday night win in late 2002. In contrast, Antowain Smith rushed for 80 yards on 16 carries and one touchdown. The real hero of this game, Cloud, scored two touchdowns and averaged 10.3 yards per carry (73 yards rushing) and was the ultimate difference in this game.
Cloud won't be such a factor Saturday night. What will be a factor is if Brady will be able to find open receivers if he has time to. The Patriots aren't likely to produce 153 rushing yards between two backs again, and the Titans could do worse to the Patriot running game than they did to Baltimore.
This game will likely turn on which defense makes the bigger plays. McNair was picked off three times against Baltimore, but the Ravens didn't have the smarts or the passing game to capitalize. If McNair is too hurt to scramble the way he can, advantage Patriots. Late reports indicate that the injuries sustained by McNair and George will not be so serious that their status for Saturday would be affected.
Whatever happens next weekend, it should be some great football in the AFC. Four teams, nobody worse than 12 wins. Look for a high scoring affair in Kansas City and a low scoring affair in Foxborough.
The Patriots have lots of external factors in their favor for this game. They haven't lost a home playoff game since 1978. They haven't lost at home since last December against the Jets. The Patriots are hotter than Tennessee, and more healthy than they've ever been all year long. And they have the threat of snow, of course.
It still will be a tough road to the Super Bowl. But at least the Patriots now know the path. Chapter One of the journey to Houston now requires a "titanic" win.
What the Patriots cannot do Saturday night is to resemble the Titanic.
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