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Game Preview: New England at Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Dec. 27, 2006) -- Rookie quarterback Vince Young has given the Tennessee Titans a chance to make NFL history.

The Titans look to keep alive their improbable bid for a playoff spot Dec. 31 when they play host to the AFC East champion New England Patriots.

Tennessee (8-7) is trying to become the first team ever to start 0-5 and make the postseason. The Titans have won six straight, but need a victory at New England along with losses by Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Denver to reach the playoffs.

"We're still alive, and considering the 0-5 start, to be alive going into the last game is very gratifying," coach Jeff Fisher said.

Their chances might look slim, but the Titans have made the improbable seem routine during their winning streak. They rallied from a 21-0 fourth-quarter deficit to beat the New York Giants, got a game-winning 60-yard field goal in a victory at Indianapolis and had three defensive touchdowns to beat Jacksonville.

And they've done it all with Young under center. He ran for a touchdown in overtime to beat Houston three weeks ago, and improved to 8-4 as the starter Dec. 24 by engineering two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter to give Tennessee a 30-29 victory at Buffalo.

"That's all you heard all season, that a rookie's not going to be able to do this and that," Young said. "And I took that as, 'Hey, let's show the world that you can do that.' "

The Patriots (11-4) clinched their fourth consecutive division title Dec. 24 with a 24-21 victory against the Jaguars. They are the fourth seed entering the final week, but could move up to No. 3 if they beat the Titans and the Colts lose to Miami.

Either way, however, New England would play host to a first-round playoff game and, if victorious, play on the road in the second round against one of the two AFC bye teams. As a result, coach Bill Belichick could decide to give some of his key regulars some rest against Tennessee.

The Patriots were in a similar situation in the 2005 finale, and Belichick played many of his starters sparingly -- including quarterback Tom Brady -- in a 28-26 loss to the Dolphins. The coach even let backup quarterback Doug Flutie into the game to execute the NFL's first successful drop kick in 64 years.

Brady might benefit from some rest after taking a hard shot on the back of his right shoulder while diving for a first down in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville.

"You take a good hit on it, it's always probably a little bit sore," Brady said. "I'm doing a lot better than I was a couple of days ago."

Veteran safety Rodney Harrison returned after missing six games with a broken shoulder blade, and rookie running back Laurence Maroney came back after sitting out two games with torn cartilage in his rib cage. But tight end Benjamin Watson (knee) and nose tackle Vincent Wilfork (ankle) both missed a second successive game, and are listed as questionable this week.

"We're going to approach this game just like we do every other game," Belichick said. "We're going to prepare for it, prepare to win, and go down there and try to play our best football game. It's that time of year, and hopefully we can continue to improve and keep playing well."

Tennessee, of course, has no such dilemma. Even if they fail to make the postseason, a victory would give the Titans their first winning season since going 12-4 in 2003 and allow them to match their victory total over the past two seasons combined.

"Considering the fact after Week 2, 3, 4 this year people were doubting whether we'd win a ballgame, being able to get on the run that we have and to put ourselves in this position certainly speaks volumes," Fisher said.

The Titans ran for 215 yards in their victory against the Bills, the fifth time they've topped 200 this season. Travis Henry ran for 135 yards and has 1,109 this season -- nearly twice what he rushed for the past two seasons combined.

Young completed 13 of 20 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 61 yards and a score, and helped Tennessee rally from a nine-point deficit in the final 12 minutes.

"This team has just continued to surprise itself, amaze itself at how we've won," Fisher said. "The bottom line is you take the field for the opening kickoff, they expect to win. Regardless of what the status is with the second-half kickoff, they still expect to win. Fortunately we've found some unique ways to do it."

The Titans have averaged 25.9 points over their past seven games, but will be up against a New England defense that ranks second in the league with 14.3 allowed per game.

Brady threw for 249 yards and a touchdown on 28-of-39 passing against a Jacksonville team that owns the league's second-rated defense, and Maroney rushed for a touchdown.

"We've accomplished something now," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of New England's division title. "It's our first goal. ... The first thing you have to do is to win the division and then go from there."

Tennessee and New England are meeting for the first time since the Patriots' 17-14 victory in the divisional playoffs on Jan. 10, 2004.

AP NEWS
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