NASHVILLE - Twenty-four/seven.
That indicated not only the final score of last night’s Titans victory over the Patriots, but how long Tennessee would have pummeled New England if they had kept playing.
The Patriots wilted under the Titans’ pounding in the trenches; Tennessee controlled the ball for 41 minutes and 30 seconds. That enabled Steve McNair (49 yards), Eddie George (101), and Robert Holcombe (85) to run wild. Tennessee rushed for 238 yards, and got two scoring runs from McNair.
The Patriots’ three-game winning streak ended, and at 8-6 they have lost one more game than they did all of last season. They also fell a game behind the Miami Dolphins with two games to play - next Sunday night against the New York Jets and the following week vs. the Dolphins in the season-finale. Both games are at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots, now 1-6 against winning teams, did not give coach Bill Belichick a proper return to his birthplace of 50 years ago. The Titans iced the game on Joe Nedney’s 28-yard field goal following a long drive with 9:22 remaining.
“We were outplayed, outcoached,” said Belichick. “It’s about as simple as that. They deserved it, we weren’t good enough.”
Titans coach Jeff Fisher found holes in the Patriots’ defense, particularly its inability to stop the run at times. He used a lot of counter plays to keep New England off balance.
“They exposed some of the problems we’ve had stopping the run from earlier in the season,” said defensive tackle Anthony Pleasant.
The Patriots’ offense was also not itself, as an aggressive defense that pressured Tom Brady continually made it difficult for the young quarterback to sustain many drives.
The Titans stuffed Brady on a fourth and 1 at the 42 with just over three minutes remaining to end the Patriots’ hopes.
“We were just fighting an uphill battle,” said Brady, who was 14 for 29 for 134 yards with one interception. “We just didn’t do anything good enough to win.”
The Patriots came out in the no-huddle in the third quarter and took advantage of back-to-back penalties - a questionable roughing the passer call on tackle Albert Haynesworth, and an interference call on cornerback Andre Dyson - which put them at the Titans 25. A 9-yard pass to Troy Brown and a 6-yard swing pass to Antowain Smith advanced the ball to the 10.
Brady took the snap and ran untouched behind center Grey Ruegamer into the end zone, making it 14-7 with 13:08 remaining in the third.
But that momentum came to a screeching halt.
Brady, who has been relatively mistake-free the past six weeks, was trying to drill a pass into David Patten deep in his own territory at approximately the 24. Patten was clocked by Dyson and the ball was picked off by Rich Coady, who rambled the 24 yards for the touchdown with 9:58 remaining in the third, restoring the Titans’ two-touchdown lead.
The Patriots were changing personnel right before the play and Patten was late getting on the field, but that did not seem to have an impact.
“It was a slant to David and the ball just bounced up and Coady took it in,” said Brady.
Coady called it “a pretty easy play. It was a gift. I caught it and I had a straight shot to the end zone.”
This got the crowd going, which in turn inspired the Titans defense. It came up with two bone-jarring hits - by linebacker Keith Bulluck on David Givens and safety Lance Schulters on Troy Brown.
Most of the Patriots claimed the Titans weren’t overly physical compared to other teams they’ve faced, but it sure looked that way.
And the Patriots just could not stop McNair.
The Titans completed a 12-play, 78-yard drive that took 6:18 to take a 7-0 lead with 12:16 remaining in the second quarter.
The Patriots defense was frustrated in trying to stop Tennessee’s balanced attack and in trying to disrupt McNair, who killed New England on the ground and in the air.
A big play in the drive was an exceptional catch at the knees by tight end Drew Bennett, who continued on for a 16-yard gain to the Titans 43. There was also a holding call on Ty Law that gave the Titans a first down at the 50 when the Patriots had had the Titans in a third-and-8. Eddie George then broke off a 10-yard run, but the topper was McNair on second and 8 from the 11.
The courageous quarterback, who has played all season with rib and toe injuries and for the most part has been unable to practice, dropped back and found all of his receivers covered. He took off down the middle of the field and then lunged into an oncoming Law, crashing into the end zone.
After a third-down sack of Brady, the Titans went right back at it, marching down the field in a strange drive that featured a Terrell Buckley interception of McNair. But Buckley then fumbled and gave the Titans the ball on their 42.
McNair’s pass was intended for Justin McCareins, but Buckley read the pattern perfectly and stepped in front of him to make the play. While running it back, guard Benji Olson plowed into Buckley, forcing the ball loose, and Holcombe recovered.
“It was bump and run, man-to-man,” said Buckley. “I read it and turned for the ball. I had room but a big guy caught me and I let the ball loose. That’s never happened to me before.”
The drive ended with McNair diving in from about a foot away on fourth down. The play was reviewed by the officials, who wanted to make sure McNair broke the plane.
On the previous play the Titans did not get the call when on Holcombe’s 5-yard run on third down he was ruled down at the 1. Holcombe’s foot hit the pylon at the right corner, but the ball didn’t cross the goal line.
There was no doubt, given the way McNair was running the ball, that the Titans would go for it. They did, and McNair scored to cap a 12-play drive.