With a playoff berth locked for New England, there was some question about how long the starters, particularly Tom Brady, would play in this one. But with the Titans still clinging to some playoff hope and a chance to enter the tournament season with some momentum and a 12-4 record, New England played this one like the playoffs had already started.
Bad blood and big plays were rampant. New England earned 129 yards worth of penalties while Tennessee had 137 of its own. When players weren't jawing and scrapping after the whistle, there was some football being played. Brady finished with 15 of 24 passing for 225 yards and a touchdown, a 62-yarder to Reche Caldwell. Corey Dillon had perhaps his best day of 2006 with 12 runs for 67 yards and two touchdowns along with two catches for another 59 yards. Laurence Maroney added 73 yards on 13 carries and a score. Caldwell led all Patriots receivers with 4 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.
Even ancient Vinny Testeverde got in on the act. His garbage time 6-yard touchdown to Troy Brown gave him 20 straight years in the NFL with a touchdown pass.
On defense, Mike Wright had his second straight stellar game as Vince Wilfork continues to rehab. Asante Samuel had two interceptions to finish with 10 on the season and the Patriots sacked Vince Young five times, holding the rookie to 15 of 36 passing for 227 yards.
It was a good way for New England to head into the playoffs as they awaited the outcome of the day's games and who their Wild Card opponent would be.
The Titans took an early lead on a 25-yard field goal. Young drove his team into scoring position on his first series of the game with big plays to Drew Bennett for 27 yards and Bobby Wade for 16. Once inside the 10, Young nearly had a touchdown when he flipped a pass across his body to Ben Hartsock streaking across the middle of the end zone. The play was ruled incomplete but it was close. After a Titans challenge, the ruling was upheld and Tennessee settled for three.
New England bounced right back with a scoring drive of its own sparked by a huge 52-yard run by Dillon on a screen pass. The play came on second and 15 from New England's 29. Brady connected with Dillon on the left side of the line and Dillon broke free, heading across the field before being tackled at the Titans 19. Heath Evans did a nice job breaking a tackle on a third and 12 pass to gain 11 yards but the Patriots opted to go for the field goal on fourth and 1 that Stephen Gostkowski nailed from 28 yards out to tie the game with 6:02 left in the first quarter.
Still in the first quarter, the Patriots got the ball back in excellent shape after Tennessee punted from its own six. The punt was caused by a couple of penalties called on the Titans Jacob Bell -- holding and unnecessary roughness -- and Young nearly being sacked in the end zone by Rodney Harrison on third down.
Brady set up first and 10 at the Titans 46 after the punt and gave to Maroney for an 8-yard gain to start things off. After a Brown catch for 5 and a first down, Kelvin Kight took an end around for 8. From there it was Dillon again. He followed up a 5-yard run with a 21-yard touchdown rumble behind the right side, breaking a tackle halfway home.
The point-after attempt was blocked by Tony Brown.
New England was poised to add to its 9-3 lead as the first quarter came to a close due to a strip sack by Jarvis Green who collapsed the pocket on Young. Rosevelt Colvin recovered and New England had the ball first and 10 at the Titans 24.
Maroney had two runs for a total of 11 yards as play moved into the second frame but all New England could muster was another 7 yards and three points on a 26-yard Gostkowski field goal.
Things got chippy on the field as Harrison was cut down on a play during the Titans next drive. Whether New England thought it was a cheap shot or someone said something on the Tennessee sideline is unclear, but Tedy Bruschi ran after Wade who made the block and a certain amount of chaos resulted.
Harrison left the field on two legs but left the sideline for the locker room shortly thereafter.
Later, Kyle Vanden Bosch was flagged for diving at Brady's knees (in his defense, it was a bad call) and bad feelings between the teams continued to mount. Even Mr. Sportsmanship, Troy Brown, got in on the act, called for unnecessary roughness two plays later as he tangled with a Titan after the whistle.
When the dust had cleared, the Patriots were able to mount another scoring drive to go up 19-3. Caldwell came up large on third and 19 as Brady pumped once and then found him open deep downfield for a 49-yard pick-up. Four plays later, Dillon took it in from 2 yards out.
Tennessee fought back, giving to Henry who in turn was finding huge holes, mostly through the right side of the Patriots defense. He ran for 25, 7 and a 34-yarder on which he was brought down at the 2 by Samuel. The drive, however, netted nothing after James Sanders sacked Young for a 5-yard loss on the next play, Tennessee couldn't get in on two more tries and amazingly, Titans placekicker Rob Bironas was wide right from only 26 yards out as the clock moved under two minutes left in the half.
New England played it safe, handing off to Maroney three straight times and punting with just over 50 seconds left. Pacman Jones (over 200 return yards on the day) fielded the kick on his own 19, broke a couple tackles, left punter Todd Sauerbrun waving at air and was gone for an 81-yard touchdown return.
With Brady taking a knee after getting the ball back, an eventful first half ended with New England up, 19-10.
The Titans struck first in the second half with a 27-yard field goal. It was a penalty-filled drive for the Patriots as they gave up 45 yards on three calls, a roughing the passer call on Mike Wright whose hand came down on Young's helmet, and two roughness calls after the whistle on Ellis Hobbs and Richard Seymour. Other than a 10-yard pass to Bennett, it was those miscues that resulted in the points for Tennessee.
Brady did the Titans one better. On his next play from scrimmage following the field goal, he fired a missile downfield to Caldwell who came up with the ball for a 62-yard touchdown. Just like that it was 26-13, New England.
Young tried to duplicate Brady's feat on his next play and was nearly successful. He looked up top to Brandon Jones and Jones came down with the ball 53 yards later at the Patriots 12. But the field goal trend for the Titans continued as all the big play resulted in was a 27-yard field goal four plays later.
The flags continued to fly in this one. Late in the third quarter Hobbs got flagged for pass interference, a very borderline call, and the Titans went from their own 31 to the Patriots 35. It looked like New England might hold the Titans to another three-point try but the legs of Young bailed his team out as he found room on third and 3 and weaved his way into the end zone from 28 yards out to pull Tennessee with three at 26-23.
Through three quarters the penalty yardage was staggering. New England had 8 penalties for 119 while the Titans had 9 for 112.
Meanwhile, as the game moved into the fourth quarter, momentum was on the Titans side. New England went four plays and out and Tennessee took over after the punt at its 24 with 13:55 remaining.
But New England's run defense was stiffening as the game wore on, forcing Young to convert long third downs. He did once, hitting Bennett for 15 yards on third and 9, but on third and 12 from his 37, he put too much air underneath a ball downfield and Samuel had plenty of time to gather himself and make the interception.
That was it for Brady on the day, as he was replaced by Matt Cassel following Samuel's pick.
Without throwing a pass, Cassel's offense picked up six points on his second series. Chad Jackson started things off with an excellent punt return to the Titans 40. Dillon then ran twice for 8 tough yards, softening up the Titans front seven. Then it was Maroney's turn who popped free for a 31-yard run to the 1. He took it in on the next play to make the score 33-23 with 6:40 left.
Testeverde tacked on the game's final score with under two minutes remaining, hitting Brown in the end zone to make the final score 40-23.