FOXBOROUGH - While the Red Sox were “cowboying up” at Fenway Park yesterday, the Patriots were “knuckling up” at Gillette Stadium. That was their unofficial rallying cry last week. That is to say New England wasn’t going to back down against one of the league’s hardest-hitting teams. The Patriots came looking for a fight with the intention of taking it to Tennessee the way the Titans took it to them last December.
Truth is, the Patriots took personally all the chatter about how physical Tennessee is. They didn’t enjoy having folks come into their ‘hood and remind them of how badly they’d been beaten (24-7) in Nashville. It’s no wonder, then, the Patriots couldn’t wait to catch the Titans on the block.
“They beat the [expletive] out of us last year,” guard Damien Woody said. “The only way to put that away was to go out and return the favor.”
The Patriots’ 38-30 win was not pretty. Entertaining, perhaps, but not pretty. New England’s offensive linemen were supposed to get overpowered. Instead, boosted by Woody’s return, they handled Tennessee’s talented defensive front to the tune of 161 rushing yards. Meanwhile, the Patriots’ wounded defense shut down Eddie George and chased Steve McNair as if he had stolen something. And safety Rodney Harrison knocked guys around as though he had been involved in last year’s loss.
Don’t get it twisted. The Titans didn’t just sit there and take it. The game featured seven lead changes. But in the end, after a fast and furious fourth quarter in which the teams combined to score 31 points, the Patriots were the last ones standing, improving to 3-2.
“All week, that’s all we heard was how physical they were,” said Harrison, who made a team-high 11 tackles, including a third-quarter hit that left Titans tight end Shad Meier with a concussion. “It was up to us to go out there and match their intensity. Going out there, one-on-one, and just knuckling up with those guys. They have a good team, a very tough team, but our guys played with a lot of heart and a lot of passion.”
Perhaps no Patriot displayed more heart than Ty Law. Playing for the second week in a row with a severely sprained right ankle, Law was on the sideline for much of the second half but talked his way back in time to jack McNair’s pass intended for Tyrone Calico and limp 65 yards with it for a touchdown that put New England ahead, 38-27, with 1 minute 49 seconds to go.
The Titans added a 41-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, but Christian Fauria recovered the ensuing onside kick.
“I looked at [Law] and I told him, `I know why you’re the best,’ “ Harrison said. “To hurt his ankle and make a play like that to seal the victory, that was huge. And that just shows what type of player Ty Law is.”
No one had a clue what type of runner Mike Cloud would be in his first game since last season. But Cloud, suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, came off the bench late in the third quarter in relief of Antowain Smith (16 carries, 80 yards, 1 touchdown before leaving with a stinger) and contributed 73 yards on seven attempts, including a 1-yard plunge in the third that put New England ahead, 21-16, a 42-yard jaunt early in the fourth that set up Adam Vinatieri’s 48-yard field goal (24-19, Patriots), and a 15-yard touchdown (set up by rookie Bethel Johnson’s 71-yard kickoff return) that gave the Patriots the lead for good, 31-27, with a little over three minutes to go.
Cloud, a former standout at Portsmouth (R.I.) High and Boston College whom the Patriots added to the active roster Saturday afternoon, underwent calf surgery in August and started running “two and a half, three weeks ago.” Unable to practice while on suspension, he was restricted to agility work “in a little closed room in Boston . . . I think the farthest I ran was maybe 20 yards the whole time.”
The Patriots ran for 161 yards, their most in 19 games, against a run defense that came in ranked third in the league. Tennessee had yielded an average of 3 yards per carry in its first four games. The Patriots gained 6 a pop. “They ran us out of here,” Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck said.
New England’s defense, short no fewer than five regulars, held Tennessee to 70 rushing yards on 27 attempts. Last December at The Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee ran through, around, and over the Patriots for 238 yards.
“That was the challenge that was put before us,” Smith said. “All week we heard about how physical Tennessee is up front. [The coaches] challenged the offensive linemen and the running backs to go out there and play hard. The offensive line established that from the first play from scrimmage and they kept that edge on all game long.”
New England still has its ongoing battle with the injury bug, and in the coming weeks, the Giants, Dolphins, Browns, and Broncos will try to get a few licks in while the Patriots are vulnerable.
That they are, but they’re anything but pushovers.
“We have heart in here,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. “We’re going to play tough. No matter who’s in there, they’re going to get the job done. That’s what I’ve been saying the last few weeks. To you guys, I’m sure it’s just something where I’m trying to keep the faith. But it’s what I believe. We’re a tough team.”