NASHVILLE - It should have been a moment to feel good about, the finishing touches put on a 12-4 season, the Patriots entering the playoffs on a winning note.
And while coach Bill Belichick was indeed proud of his team following yesterday’s 40-23 victory over the Titans - and noted that the Patriots’ goals remain ahead in the playoffs, starting Sunday against the New York Jets (1 p.m.) - he also was seething. Big time.
The focus of his wrath was Titans receiver Bobby Wade, who executed a low, second-quarter block that took out safety Rodney Harrison’s legs, and turned the regular-season finale between the Patriots and Titans at LP Field into a simmering battle of bad blood.
On the play in question, Wade lined up as a receiver to the right side on third and 1. As the handoff went to Titans running back Travis Henry to that side, Wade blocked toward the middle of the field, lunging low at Harrison’s legs. Harrison went down with a thud, banging the field with his right fist. He never returned, and it was unclear how serious he was injured after the game.
Belichick felt the play was illegal, because players aren’t allowed to block below the waist from the outside part of the field to the inside part.
After the play, linebacker Tedy Bruschi charged toward the Titans bench before being restrained, and thus the tone was set for what turned out to be a game that some Patriots felt wasn’t played with dignity by their opponent.
"There were some dirty things going on," said defensive end Ty Warren (seven tackles, a sack). "It was their last game; they’re not playing for much. You expect more out of them, character-wise."
Wade defended his block on Harrison, which came on the Titans’ "16 stretch" running play, before taking a shot at Harrison by saying "he takes full advantage of being able to hit somebody in the face."
The emotions were still bubbling over in the locker room after the game, with Bruschi and linebacker Mike Vrabel among those snappily refusing comment.
Meanwhile, the Titans had their own issues with the Patriots, as linebacker Keith Bulluck felt New England’s final touchdown - a Vinny Testaverde 6-yard strike to Troy Brown with 1:45 left that extended Testaverde’s record for consecutive seasons with at least one touchdown pass (20) - was an act of poor sportsmanship.
"I think it was [expletive], and as long as I am here I will always remember that," Bulluck said.
Emotions were high on both sides, which resulted in Ed Hochuli’s officiating crew calling nine assessed penalties on the Patriots (for 129 yards) and 10 on the Titans (for 119 yards). On one third-quarter Titans drive, the Patriots’ defense was called for three 15-yard penalties - roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, and a personal foul. Also, veteran receiver Brown, who is considered one of the classiest players in the game, was called for unnecessary roughness.
"We got into a little pushing and shoving match that we didn’t want to get into," said New England defensive lineman Richard Seymour. "We understood what was going on, and after that, we regrouped and came back out and finished things off."
The Patriots did finish with a bang, answering in the final 15 minutes after the Titans closed to 26-23 late in the third quarter. The Patriots scored the game’s final 14 points and cornerback Asante Samuel intercepted two fourth-quarter passes, giving him 10 on the season, to seal the victory.
With the Patriots already having clinched a playoff spot and only able to move up to the No. 3 seed, there was some question as to how long several players would go, and starting quarterback Tom Brady was pulled with 11:05 left and the Patriots leading, 26-23. Brady finished 15 of 24 for 225 yards and one touchdown. His favorite target was receiver Reche Caldwell, who finished with a team-high four catches for 134 yards, which included a season-long 62-yard scoring bomb in the third quarter.
The Patriots enjoyed a big day on the ground, totaling 171 yards on 31 carries, with rookie Laurence Maroney (73 yards, 13 carries, TD) and 10-year veteran Corey Dillon (67 yards, 12 carries, 2 TDs) leading the way.
On both sides of the ball, the team rotated players at several positions, although the majority of starters went the distance, which was somewhat of a surprise.
After falling behind, 3-0, early in the first quarter, the Patriots opened a 9-3 lead by the end of the quarter - on Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard field goal and a Dillon 21-yard scoring run off right tackle (the extra point was blocked).
The Patriots were in command throughout the emotion-laden second quarter, increasing the bulge to 19-3 on Gostkowski’s 26-yard field goal and a Dillon 1-yard scoring run. But the Titans received a jolt at the end of the quarter when Pacman Jones returned a booming Todd Sauerbrun punt 81 yards for a touchdown 32 seconds before the break.
Belichick ripped into Sauerbrun on the sideline, possibly for failing to execute a directional punt that pinned Jones in, but later blamed himself for not coaching the play properly.
After the Titans sliced the lead to 19-13 on a 27-yard Rob Bironas field goal midway through the third quarter, the Patriots answered on their next play, with Brady hitting Caldwell for the 62-yard score and a 26-13 lead.
Yet Tennessee (8-8), which had won six straight, scored the game’s next 10 points, the final 7 coming when quarterback Vince Young (15 of 36 for 227 yards, 2 INTs; 2 rushes, 29 yards) ran 28 yards up the middle for a touchdown late in the third.
In need of a few momentum-swinging plays, the Patriots got one from Samuel, who intercepted Young on a long pass to the Patriots’ 14 early in the fourth quarter. The next big play came from rookie Chad Jackson, who returned a Titans punt 39 yards to the Tennessee 40 with 8:28 left.
The Patriots followed with four rushing plays, the biggie a 31-yard gain from Maroney, who capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge.
All that was left was for the defense to hold off the Titans - which it did with a fourth-down stop and second Samuel pick - and Testaverde’s TD toss.
"In the end, I’m proud of the team," said Belichick, who now prepares to face his former defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, and the Jets. "I thought we hung in there and fortunately we made enough plays to win. It was a tough game. Now it’s time for us to look ahead. It will be a big challenge."