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Patriots advance with 17-14 win

It was everything Bill Belichick predicted: a close, tough, cold game. When it was over, the 68,436 loyal Patriots fans were rewarded with a 17-14 win and a chance to watch their team in the AFC Championship game.

It was everything Bill Belichick predicted: a close, tough, cold game. When it was over, the 68,436 loyal Patriots fans were rewarded with a 17-14 win and a chance to watch their team in the AFC Championship game.

Brutally cold temperatures may have slowed the offenses a bit, but the hitting was no less hard with each team's playoff life on the line. In the end, Adam Vinatieri was good on a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter and the defense made the 3-point lead stick.

"I think it happened just the way we talked about it before the game," left tackle Matt Light said. "The cold was something we were thinking about right before we went out to warm up. We go out there to warm up and we're like, 'It's the same thing we've seen the last three or four days. So it's time to play ball.' So after we got that first step out of the way everything was back to normal."

Both quarterbacks threw well when they had to while their numbers were below their usual averages. Tom Brady was 21 of 41 for 201 yards and a touchdown while Steve McNair was 18 of 26 for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Derrick Mason was McNair's main target with 7 catches for 90 yards and a score. Brady, on the other hand, spread the ball around to 10 receivers, none of whom had more than four catches.

"I think Tom's ability to see different receivers open all over the field definitely puts defenses on their heels and that is a great asset for our offense," wide receiver David Givens said of Brady's ability to spread the offensive wealth.

As frigid as it was, it was fitting that Brady would go to the team's burner for the game's first score.

After holding the Titans to three and out to open the game, New England took over at its own 31 after the punt. A 19-yard pass to Kevin Faulk brought the Patriots into Titans territory. Three plays later, on third and 6, Brady hit speedster Bethel Johnson from 41 yards out for the score.

"They moved me around a little bit and it left me one on one with the safety," Johnson said of his matchup with Titans safety Lance Schulters. "Tom knew that the safety wasn't going to make the play."

The Titans answered right back, driving 61 yards in 3:28 capped with a Chris Brown 5-yard run for the touchdown. Tennessee mixed run and pass but the two big plays were a 15-yard pass to Derrick Mason and a 24-yarder to Drew Bennett. The Titans were also helped by a roughing call on Seymour that gave them a first down on the 9-yard line of New England.

The Patriots had a chance to regain the lead on their next possession but Vinatieri missed a 44-yard attempt wide left. New England had driven from its 36 to the Titans 26.

Second time was a charm after Rodney Harrison intercepted McNair on the Titans next play. McNair was looking to Shad Meier in single coverage with Harrison but under threw him enough for Harrison to turn and make the pick.

"They had split me out wide a couple of times before and once Meier got in I figured they were going to test me and see if I could still cover," Harrison said. "They sent him on a deep ball and I knew they were going to come at me. So I just wanted to make sure I covered him tight and had an opportunity to get the ball and I went and got it."

New England took over at its own 43. On third and 13 Brady found Bethel Johnson but Johnson was met by four Tennessee defenders. Reversing direction, Johnson headed towards the Patriots bench where Brady threw a beautiful block to spring his rookie wide receiver down the left sideline.

"If I catch a ball and then reverse field I better get the first down," Johnson said of his thoughts on the play. "Not a lot of guys expect [Brady] to do that, but I saw it in his eyes that he wanted to make that block. He made the block and helped spring me for the first down."

The result was a 14-yard pick-up and a first down. From the Titans 46, Brady hit Christian Fauria for 19 yards over the middle and again for 14 more.

That play took the Patriots down to the 13-yard line. As the second quarter began, Brady kept for a 3-yard run on third and 3 from the 6. It took two plays for Smith to bang it in from there, the scoring run a 1-yarder.

After the relatively fast offensive start considering the conditions, the scoring slowed down to the point that it wasn't until 1:08 left in the half that either team had a chance to add to its total. It was the Titans attempting a 31-yard field goal but Richard Seymour got a hand up and blocked the Gary Anderson kick.

New England couldn't do anything with the ball after getting it back with a minute left and the half ended with the Patriots up, 14-7.

Around mid-way through the second quarter, the Titans began winning the battle for field position and that continued into the second half. After the Patriots failed to get over midfield on their first try of the second half, the Titans finished a drive with points.

Despite three penalties during the 70-yard drive, the Titans looked like the temperature was 80 degrees as they sifted through the Patriots defense until McNair hit Derrick Mason from 11-yards out for the game-tying touchdown.

New England averted disaster when Daniel Graham fumbled a 1-yard pass and Carlos Hall of the Titans recovered on the next series. The Patriots defense, led by Willie McGinest hitting Frank Wycheck for a 10-yard loss, held Tennessee to three and out. But field position remained on the Titans side as the ensuing punt rolled down to the Patriots 5-yard line.

On first down, however, Smith banged off a 17-yard run behind the left side of the line to give his team breathing room at the 22. That play and the subsequent drive, although it netted no points, allowed New England to gain field position advantage. The Patriots advanced to the Titans 39 and Ken Walter downed his punt on the 7-yard line.

Tennessee could not get any further than its 18 and had to punt. Craig Hentrich got off a bad kick and New England had the ball first and 10 on the Titans 40. On third and 3, Brady threw incomplete and Belichick elected to go for it on fourth down. Brady rewarded him by finding Brown for 4 yards.

With the new set of downs, New England could only get to the 27 where Vinatieri was good on a 46-yard field goal for the 17-14 lead.

"Honestly when I hit it I didn't think it was going to even be that close," Vinatieri said of his game-winning kick that just made it through the lower left corner of the uprights. "I thought I hit well and I was kind of celebrating, maybe a little bit premature at that point because nobody else was cheering yet for a couple of seconds. I did I thought I hit it well and fortunately it was just maybe a yard or two enough."

"He missed the first one," linebacker Tedy Bruschi joked. "We were sort of mad at him about doing that, but when the game was on the line he came back and put it through. That's all that matters."

As it turned out, it was all New England would need.

As time dwindled in the game, Tennessee had one last chance to tie or win. Starting from their 24, the Titans managed to get down to the Patriots 33 but two plays, both involving Bruschi, killed Tennessee. The first was a blitz with Bruschi coming up the middle and forcing McNair to intentionally ground the ball. That created a third and 13 from the 43. On the next play, Bruschi was held by Benji Olson as he headed for McNair again. The two penalties were killers.

McNair completed an 11-yard pass to Bennett on third and 22. On fourth down, the Patriots blitzed again and McNair threw a high fly to Bennett that was broken up. With just over 90 seconds left to play, the ball was New England's and the game was essentially over.

"They were killing us – spreading us out and hitting us in our soft spots," cornerback Ty Law said. "So we were just like, 'Look, let's just bring it.' If we are going to lose, we are going to lose it bringing it. Make them throw the ball quick and match up on the receivers and things like that. You have opportunities to make plays either way, but we just made it a little bit too easy when we were in a soft zone."

The Patriots will now wait for the winner of the Colts/Chiefs game on Sunday. The winner will travel to Gillette Stadium next Sunday for a 3:00 PM game.

"For us to go out there and play as well as we did, this is a big boost," Light said. "Everybody around here deserves to sit around tomorrow and watch this next game and get ready."

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