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Titans Tough, But Patriots Just A Bit Tougher

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Jan 10, 2004 at 5:00am ET

FOXBOROUGH - This cold and snow thing only works against Miami. Anyone else, let's stop all this hype.

Tom Brady was more affected by the cold than Steve McNair was. Derrick Mason made some big catches, Daniel Graham made some big drops. Drew Bennett was a magician along the sidelines, Deion Branch was not. Antowain Smith looked studly in the Patriot backfield. So did Eddie George in his. And Chris Brown actually outperformed them both.

You just knew that the time-honored staples of Patriot football were going to be the ones who would bail the Patriots out of a tough battle like Saturday night in the frigid weather of Foxborough. The defense came up with the stops it needed to down the stretch. And Adam Vinatieri, suffering through the worst season of his distinguished career, wound up hitting the game-winning field goal from about the same distance that he seems to nail his biggest kicks.

The Patriots managed to hold on and slip past Tennessee, 17-14, to put themselves into the AFC Championship Game (where the Patriots are 3-0 in franchise history) next Sunday at Gillette Stadium. What was supposed to be a tough battle turned out to be just that, and the Titans seemed visibly upset and ornery when the Patriots ran off the final 1:33 of the game clock. The Titans were tough in defeat, but it is defeat that the Tennesseans must accept.

It seemed that the Patriots would indeed lay a hurting on the seemingly frozen Titans right from the get-go. After a Tennessee three-and-out to begin the game, the Patriots drove 70 yards in six plays for a quick touchdown. Kevin Faulk took a dump pass over the middle for 19 yards, and three plays later Brady found Bethel Johnson on a deep post pattern for 41 yards and a score. The Patriots had wasted no time in revealing the prime defensive weakness of Tennessee, as Lance Schulters could not keep up with the speedy Patriot rookie.

But Tennessee served immediate notice that this game would be a death struggle all night long. McNair lived up to his warrior reputation with the best response of all to the Johnson touchdown. He marched the Titans 61 yards in six plays, hitting Derrick Mason on a 15-yard slant pattern, then later found Bennett along the left sideline and laid in a beautiful touch pass for 24 yards. Brown would cover the final 13 yards in two plays.

The Patriots would spend the rest of the evening never being able to shake off the Titans. Tennessee never led in the game, but the Patriots never led by more than a touchdown. After Vinatieri hooked a 44-yard attempt wide left, the Patriots got a break when Rodney Harrison intercepted a deep left sideline pass and ran it back to the Patriot 43. Brady then took the Patriots on a 57-yard excursion, and on the third play of the second quarter, Smith ran it in from one yard out.

It was a defensive stalemate for the remainder of the half, the biggest play coming from Richard Seymour. He kept things at seven points by blocking a 31-yard field goal attempt from Gary Anderson with a minute left in the half. But Brady played it safe, knowing the Patriots got the ball to start the second half.

If the Titans had a chance to take permanent command of this game, it would have been in the third quarter. According to CBS's Armen Keteyian, Charlie Weis had told the Patriots in the locker room that this first drive was "the most important drive of the season". This "most important drive" consisted of a nice Smith run followed by two failed quick screens and a Brady overthrow of Branch over the middle. Tennessee got the ball at their 30 and would tie the game 7:47 later.

George had a nice eight-yard run, but facing third and six from their own 34, Harrison came in on a blitz and came within two feet of sacking McNair. He just got the ball off, and the lollypop throw wound up in the arms of Tyrone Calico 30 yards downfield at the left sideline. Tyrone Poole was simply late getting over in coverage. A ten-yard pass to Justin McCareins over the middle with Roman Phifer defending got the Titans in the Red Zone. On third and nine from the Patriot 10, McNair found Mason in the left flat. Asante Samuel had him dead to right at the six, but Mason broke the tackle and took a flying leap over the left pylon into the end zone to tie the contest.

But that is all that Tennessee would get. Mason was killing the Patriots in the first half, matching up one-on-one with Eugene Wilson. McNair was getting terrific protection and making great throws, especially in the flats. On the other side, Brady (21 of 41, 201 yards) was overthrowing receivers and never found a rhythm after the first drive of the game. Weis had found no formula in dealing with the tough Titan defense, led by linebackers Peter Sirmon and Keith Bullock (17 tackles collectively).

What helped win the game for the Patriots was increased pressure on McNair and some nice ball control by the offense. Next to the drive that resulted in the game-winning field goal, the drive that preceded it was critical for the Patriots. Craig Hentrich pinned the Patriots back to their own 5 late in the third quarter, but the Patriots were able to drive 56 yards and eat up just under five minutes. Ken Walter then pinned the Titans back to their own 7, and the Titans were able to only run six plays and gain ten yards. The Patriots got the ball back at the Titan 40 and got Vinatieri in position to kick his winning field goal.

Penalties (which hurt the Titans badly; nine infractions for 55 yards including three delay of game penalties against McNair) did the Titans in on their final drive. After driving 43 yards in four plays to the Patriot 33, the Titans proceeded to move backwards. McNair was called for grounding, morphing second and two into third and 12. Benji Olson was then called for holding, pushing the Titans back to their own 47. Bennett caught a ten-yard pass to make it fourth and 12, but on their final offensive play, McNair was forced to launch a lollypop downfield to avoid being sacked by Harrison. Bennett was down at about the Patriot 10, and had to come back to the ball. Poole slipped and fell down, but Bennett leaped for the ball a second too soon. The ball caromed off his hands, and the Patriots had their win.

Many people thought that this Tennessee team would be the biggest obstacle between the Patriots and another Vince. The Titans fought the Patriots tooth and nail, but in the end the Patriots simply played better defense and overall smarter football. What the Patriots were unable to do offensively, they won this game the way they have managed to win most of the other 15 wins this season, by simply doing what they had to do to win.

This is still another in a long line of moments where, when you look back on this season, if the Patriots do indeed take this all the way, the championship was built, brick by brick. Championship teams do this sort of thing all the time. It is hard to imagine how many times the Patriots have managed to pull out tough wins like this. They are 8-0 against winning teams this season with this win. Sooner or later, the naysayers will simply shut up and subsequently disappear.

Tough win. Maybe an ugly win. Still a win. Still a loss for Tennessee.

Simply stated, the Titans were tough, and the Patriots were tougher.

But you can rest assured that the Patriots will always remember the Titans.

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