]() Coming off a gutsy performance last week against Washington, the Patriots were that and more, knocking off the physical Titans, 38-30.
What looked like it could be a defensive struggle in the first half, broke wide open in the second as the Patriots hammered the ball on the ground while the Titans took to the air.
New England's first test on defense came right at the beginning of the game. Don Davis committed a facemask on the Titans kickoff return and Tennessee started at their own 41. Down on the New England 30, the defense stiffened, stopping Eddie George and getting pressure on McNair to force a 48-yard Craig Hentrich field goal attempt which was good for the early 3-0 Titans lead.
]() On the ensuing kickoff, Bethel Johnson had a return of 50 yards down to the Titans 43. Things continued to look promising when Antowain Smith ran off tackle for 19 yards and David Patten caught a pass for 13 yards. But a false start penalty on Brady and three straight incompletes, one of them a miss by Brady on a screen that had Smith with daylight in front of him, brought on Vinatieri for a 34-yard try, which was no good.
That gave the ball back to the Titans and eventually another three points thanks to a 43-yard field goal by Gary Anderson. The drive was extended due to a hands-to-the-face penalty on Tyrone Poole on a third and 12 play that had been stopped by the Patriots.
The Patriots got on the scoreboard with the game's first touchdown with 1:08 left in the first quarter. Troy Brown had just committed a false start to make the situation second and 15 at the Titans 42. Brady dropped back with good time, surveyed the field and spotted Brown breaking away from coverage downfield. A perfect pass caught up to Brown in stride and he took it in for the score and the 7-6 Patriots lead.
The Patriots defense used the momentum and sacked McNair on a third and 9. Anthony Pleasant broke free from the right side and dropped McNair for a 12-yard loss.
A decision to go for the first down on a fourth and 1 could have built even more momentum on the next series, but Brady was flushed from the pocket and sacked on the play giving the Titans the ball on their own 41.
New England's defense continued to shine, with Dan Klecko dropping George for a 3-yard loss on the next series and the Titans were three and out in short order.
With the ball back, the Patriots worked Smith with four straight runs totaling 34 yards (63 first-half yards). Once down to the Titans 21, however, Vinatieri was brought on for another field goal attempt, this one a 39-yarder, and the usually reliable kicker missed his third consecutive field goal going back to last week's game in Washington.
Smith said the running success started with the guys up front, a mindset the offensive line came into the game with and swiftly enacted.
"When they come out and establish the type of tempo that they did today, come out being physical and weren't going to back down from the challenge…all week they heard, along with myself, how good Tennessee was up front," Smith said. "So the guys took it upon themselves to go out there and just meet the challenge and they did a [heck] of a job out there today."
Rookie center Dan Koppen, a central figure in the unit's success, agreed with his rushing teammate.
"We want to come out and we want to try to run the ball," Koppen said. "We like the ball-control game. Today we were just able to go out and it started right from the beginning. We were able to get on guys and the backs, Antowain and Mike [Cloud], were finding the holes."
That said, the Patriots were far from perfect. Yet another missed opportunity came when a Troy Brown punt return for a touchdown was called back for an illegal block on Asante Samuel.
Those miscues proved costly in the final minutes of the first half as McNair connected with Justin McCareins for a 44-yard completion on third and 10. Despite good pressure, McNair just got the pass off and McCareins came down with the ball on the 1-yard line with Law in coverage. McNair kept the ball himself for the score two plays later.
Tennessee had a last chance to add to its 13-7 lead when Anderson tried a 46-yard field goal with :11 left but missed.
New England had the ball first as the second half opened and hit paydirt with an 11-play, 59-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard Smith touchdown. As he did throughout the first half, Smith ran hard throwing in an 11-yard reception on a screen pass – the same play that Brady misfired on in the first half.
Tennessee bounced right back with a 33-yard Anderson field goal to retake the lead at 16-14. New England had been bottling up the Titans ground game throughout but the big play on this drive came through the air with McNair hitting Tyrone Calico for 40 yards. On the play, Samuel had a chance to minimize the damage but missed the initial tackle attempt and Calico escaped down the sideline until Wilson pushed him out of bounds on the 18-yard line.
The game Patriots were not laying down on this day. A 1-yard dive by the just-activated Mike Cloud had New England up 21-16 after the extra point. Cloud was in the game spelling Smith who had the wind knocked out of him on the first play of the drive. On his first run, Cloud gained 17 yards. Deion Branch was the other star of the scoring drive with two catches of 17 and 7 respectively.
The Titans crept to within two on their next drive. With Ty Law off the field nursing his ankle, McNair was taking his chances through the air and again found Calico, this time for 45 yards with Samuel in coverage. But it wasn't until McNair kept on a third and 15 from the 30 that the Titans could penetrate the red zone and his 11-yard run was not enough for the first down. That brought on Anderson for a 37-yard attempt that he made.
It only took 1:32 for the Patriots to get back the three points. Cloud banged one off the right side for 42 yards, down to the Titans 28 on the first play from scrimmage. Vinatieri came on after the next three plays netted minus 2 yards for a 48-yard field goal attempt and this time he was true for a 24-19 Patriots lead.
But as the Red Sox were rallying for a win in their game against the A's, the Titans were staging a massive, 7:17, 17-play, 86-yard drive for a touchdown and a 27-24 lead. McNair picked apart the Patriots secondary down the field until he took it in himself from a yard out. The Titans then tried for the 2-point conversion and were successful through the air.
]() No to be outdone, New England struck back quickly. Adding to his earlier 50-yard return, Johnson took the Titans kickoff 71 yards down to the Titans 30. On third and 16, Branch caught a quick sideline pass and eluded Tony Beckham for a 23-yard gain. From 15 yards out, the line parted and Cloud took it in for the score.
"It was a basic trap play," Cloud said. "I just saw the left side open up and it was just a reaction thing. I saw the end zone and there was a safety there and I just had to make him miss."
Up 31-27 with 3:14 left in the game, it was up to the Patriots defense to put the clamps on the Titans and preserve the lead, and who better than Ty Law to make the play that sealed the win. Law, just back in the game from his injury, stepped in front of a McNair pass intended for Calico and took the interception 65 yards for the score, the 38-27 lead and ultimately the 38-30 win.
"It was one of those series where you are going to get your receivers to go out of bounds to stop the clock so you can save yourself time," Law said of his approach on the interception. "I kind of baited him a little bit and anticipated certain things and it worked out for us. That's what you call a gamble. I doubled down on the blackjack table and we won."
The Titans did tack on a 40-yard Anderson field goal and attempted an onside kick but Christian Fauria snatched the ball in the air to end things with the final score 38-30.
Individually, the Patriots ground game was superb. Smith ran for 80 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries before leaving the game and Cloud had 73 yards on 7 carries and two scores.
Brady was 17 of 31 for 219 yards and a touchdown while Branch led the Patriots receivers with 5 catches for 68 yards.
For the Titans, McNair was 23 of 45 for 391 yards and a touchdown. His two main targets were Mason (8 catches for 99 yards) and Calico (3 catches for 92 yards).
While the Patriots were undoubtedly excited about the big win over a tough conference opponent, defensive captain Richard Seymour said the key for the team will be to take the win in stride and continue in an even-keeled manner in the coming weeks.
"We are just coming in and trying to build on this," Seymour said. "It was a big win for us, but like I said we don't want to get too high on our wins and we don't want to get too low on our losses. If we can just float at this [emotional] stage on throughout and stay humble, good things are going to happen to us."