FOXBOROUGH - Give him credit. He called it. Bill Belichick predicted a week ago that last night’s AFC divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium against the Tennessee Titans would be the Patriots’ toughest game of the season. It sounded like a cliche when he said it. But Belichick couldn’t have been more accurate.
Playing in the coldest game in franchise history (4 degrees, minus-10 windchill at kickoff), the top-seeded Patriots held on for a 17-14 win over the wild-card Titans. Adam Vinatieri, who had missed a 44-yard field goal in the first quarter, gave New England the win with a 46-yarder with 4 minutes 6 seconds to play.
The Patriots, winners of 13 straight, will host the winner of Sunday’s Indianapolis-Kansas City matchup in the AFC Championship game. A win would put the Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years.
The Titans made it interesting on their last possession, driving 36 yards to New England’s 40 before self-destructing after the two-minute warning. First, Tennessee was penalized 10 yards for intentional grounding by Steve McNair. Guard Benji Olson’s holding penalty pushed the Titans back another 10 yards and put them in a third-and-22 situation.
McNair threw 10 yards to Drew Bennett on third down. On fourth and 12 from New England’s 43, Rodney Harrison’s blitz forced McNair to throw up a jump ball to Bennett, who bobbled it and had it knocked away by Asante Samuel.
“It was everything we expected of this game,” Belichick said. “All their key players played well. We were fortunate to make more plays than Tennessee did.”
“It was one of the more intense games I’ve played in,” Harrison said.
The Patriots gained 297 yards to the Titans’ 284. McNair played like a co-MVP, completing 18 of 26 passes for 210 yards. But, as it has all season, New England’s defense stiffened when it had to. “It was our season,” Harrison said. “We had let them go downfield, and enough was enough. We challenged them. We stepped up and said if they’re going to beat us, they’re going to beat us. You can’t let him sit back there and sling the ball. We decided to try something different and give him a different look.”
After the game the Patriots did not have the look of a team that was a win away from the Super Bowl. “We’re not jumping for joy in here,” Tedy Bruschi said. “We know what we want to do. We’re just one step closer.”
“We’re not looking at the Super Bowl. We’re looking at one game at a time,” said Harrison, repeating what has become a familiar refrain. “You don’t see guys jumping around. We’re focused.”
Titans guard Zach Piller was not impressed, even after the Patriots had beaten the Titans for a second time this season. “Everyone was talking about their defense,” Piller said. “I thought it sucked. It’d be a shock to me if they were holding the trophy at the end of all of this. . . . I will not leave this stadium thinking we got beat by a better team. I think that that team is not a very good team and it sickens me that we lost to them. It just wasn’t our day.”
The Titans took their first possession of the second half and marched 70 yards in 11 plays, tying the game on Steve McNair’s 11-yard collaboration with Derrick Mason. The drive took 7:47 and included a 30-yard completion from McNair to Tyrone Calico. On the touchdown, Mason took McNair’s short pass, slipped the attempted tackle of Asante Samuel, and leaped over Tyrone Poole and the pylon.
New England hadn’t committed any major errors until tight end Daniel Graham fumbled (Kevin Carter forced it) and the Titans’ Carlos Hall recovered near midfield. But the Patriots’ defense didn’t budge, forcing Tennessee into a three and out. Credit Willie McGinest for the stop; he blew up an attempted screen to Frank Wycheck, tackling the tight end for a 10-yard loss on first down.
The first quarter was a continuation of the Oct. 5 thriller between these teams: a back-and-forth struggle sprinkled with big plays. It ended with the score tied at 7.
The last time New England played Tennessee, the Patriots had to share the Gillette Stadium fans’ attention with the Red Sox. Fitting, then, that the Patriots went to their home-run threat on their first possession.
The Patriots got rookie speedster Bethel Johnson matched up on Titans safety Lance Schulters in the slot on third and 6 from Tennessee’s 41-yard line. Advantage: New England. Johnson easily beat Schulters on a deep post. Tom Brady led Johnson perfectly on the throw, and the fans were celebrating a 7-0 lead four minutes in.
Johnson made another exciting play on the Patriots’ third possession. On third and 13 from New England’s 40, Brady dumped it off to Johnson, who was running a left-to-right drag route. Johnson made the catch and continued across the field but ran into trouble (a bunch of Titans) around the hashmarks. Johnson reversed his field, and Brady sprang him with a block on Schulters. By the end of the play, Johnson had gained 14 yards and a first down.
The Titans led the league in third-down defense during the regular season. But New England converted 4 of 8 in the first half.
Tight end Christian Fauria also had a big first half, catching three passes for 42 yards, including an acrobatic 9-yard reception over Tank Williams that converted a fourth and 1 and put New England at Tennessee’s 24 on its second possession. But the drive stalled there, and the Patriots missed an opportunity to break the tie when Vinatieri, who has been battling a sore back for weeks, missed a 44-yard field goal wide left.
Tennessee took over, but New England took the ball away on the next play.
Titans tight end Shad Meier suffered a concussion in the Oct. 5 game on a hit from Rodney Harrison, prompting Meier to dub Harrison a “trained killer.” Harrison is pretty skilled at pass coverage, as well, and he showed it by blanketing Meier down the right sideline and intercepting McNair’s long pass to end Tennessee’s third drive before the Titans could get out of the driveway.
Keyed by Johnson’s catch-and-run, Fauria’s 19-yard reception, and Brady’s 3-yard scramble to the first-down marker, the Patriots went 57 yards in 11 plays on the ensuing possession and took a 14-7 lead on Antowain Smith’s 1-yard plunge off the left side.
Smith was effective against the league’s top run defense. He kept the Titans honest with 32 yards on 10 carries in the first half, including a 13-yard burst up the middle. He added a 10-yard run early in the second half and finished the third quarter with a powerful 17-yard jaunt, but limped off the field for the second time - tossing his helmet in frustration - with an apparent leg injury.
Brady, runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, outplayed co-MVP McNair in the first half, completing 12 of 23 passes for 166 yards (rating: 90.1). McNair hit on 9 of 13 for 109 yards (rating: 62.7).
Tennessee’s first-half stars were Mason (5 receptions, 72 yards, working primarily out of the slot) and backup running back Chris Brown. Brown averaged 6 yards on four carries, with a long of 13. His 5-yard touchdown with 7:31 left in the first quarter answered Johnson’s touchdown. The Titans got help from Richard Seymour on the drive; his roughing the passer penalty gave them first and goal at the 9.
Seymour redeemed himself with a minute to go before halftime by blocking Gary Anderson’s 31-yard field goal attempt.