The Patriots final road game of the regular season might also be their toughest test thus far. The Tennessee Titans are currently tied with Indianapolis at 8-5 for the lead in the AFC South, but they're as hot as any team in the NFL right now.
If the postseason began today, the Titans would actually win the AFC South title by virtue of two wins over the Colts, while the Patriots would have to fight it out with Indy, Miami and San Diego for the two wild card spots.
The Titans rebounded from a miserable 1-4 start and ripped off seven wins in their last eight games. The lone loss in that stretch came in a disappointing 13-12 loss at Baltimore three weeks ago. Other than that, nobody's been tougher than Tennessee for the last two months.
"This is a team that is smart and tough and you have to be ready to go on every play," Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "You have to buckle up your chin straps against them because they're going to make you work."
Belichick gave much of the credit for the Titans success to general manager, Floyd Reese, and head coach Jeff Fisher. Both men got their starts in the league as players and worked their way through the ranks as coaches before ascending to their current heights. The Titans went to the Super Bowl in 1999 with that tandem in control, falling a yard short of tying the St. Louis Rams on the final play of the game in dropping a 23-16 decision.
Tennessee followed that with a 13-3 finish in 2000 but lost to Baltimore in the divisional round, and then sunk to 7-9 last season. When the Titans began this season 1-4, losing four straight after a comeback win over Philadelphia to open the campaign, many left Tennessee for dead.
But Fisher and his offensive coordinator, Mike Heimerdinger, got things turned around with an offense that has switched its focus from powerful lead back Eddie George to the versatile talents of quarterback Steve McNair.
"Right now they're doing everything well," Belichick said. "They're tough on offense because they keep the ball. They lead the league in time of possession, they're very high in third-down conversions, they can run it well with George and the quarterback's shown he can bring them back.
"They also lead the league in kickoff coverage and make you play on a long field. They're a very good defensive team so that makes them difficult to score against. There just aren't a lot of holes on that football team."
The Titans preference is pound away with George between the tackles. The former Ohio State Buckeye was once considered one of the top two or three runners in football but injuries slowed him dramatically last season and he hasn't quite regained his form thus far in 2002. He averaged less than 3 yards per carry in 2001 and still resides below the 3.5 mark this year.
But George is a workhorse who can wear down a defense. Much of his damage is done running right up the gut behind center Gennaro DiNapoli and guards Benji Olson and Zach Piller. He's not the breakaway threat that Kansas City's Priest Holmes and San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson were, but he won't back down from the suddenly rejuvenated Patriots front seven, either.
"[George] is a big back for them and does a great job for what they want to do on offense," defensive tackle Richard Seymour said. "He's a similar runner to Antowain [Smith] – a big power runner inside between the tackles. He also has a lot of speed and he's capable of making big runs. He's a big part of their offense and someone we'll definitely have to stop."
When the Titans have been forced to look in another direction, McNair has been able to more than pick up the slack. Injuries have limited McNair's running in recent seasons, but lately he's moved alertly and effectively in and out of the pocket.
Despite not being able to practice much because of sore ribs and turf toe, McNair has been the catalyst in the Titans resurgence. He's already thrown a career-high 21 touchdown passes and is completing more than 63 percent of his throws. McNair has also shown a flair for the dramatic, especially during a 32-29 overtime win over the Giants two weeks ago at the Meadowlands.
"I think he's good," Belichick said. "He's playing real well right now. He runs very effectively, maybe not as much as he used to but he's not going to just run in there and get sandwiched by three guys. If he sees an opening he's going to take it. Like the two-point conversion [to tie the Giants game]. Those are the plays a quarterback has to make. If he doesn't, they lose and Steve's been making them."
Defensively the Titans are expected to get Jevon Kearse back in the lineup after the defensive end missed all but two plays of the season with a broken bone in his foot. He should improve a pass rush that has been mostly comprised of Kevin Carter on the left side and rookie seventh-round pick Carlos Hall in place of Kearse.
The Titans are also tough at home, winning 24 of their 33 games all time at The Coliseum in Nashville, Tenn. The Patriots will need to be at their best in order to buck that trend and with a potential wild card berth at stake could use a conference victory for tiebreaker purposes down the road.
Linebacker Matt Chatham was placed on injured reserve after breaking his left hand against the Bills last Sunday. Chatham said he suffered the injury while covering a kickoff in the first half but had a hard cast put in place at halftime and played the remainder of the game. He hoped to do the same for the last three weeks but Belichick and the training staff felt differently, opting to have the third-year man undergo surgery on Tuesday, ending his season.
The Patriots signed Ula Tuitele to take his place on the roster, marking the 17th transaction he's been involved in with the Patriots since originally signing as an undrafted free agent back in 1999. Tuitele spent parts of the last two seasons on the team's active roster but was released despite having a solid preseason in 2002. He spent the first 11 weeks of the season with Buffalo before the Bills let him go two weeks ago, opening the door for his return.
Tuitele will provide insurance at inside linebacker with Tedy Bruschi still on the mend from the knee injury he sustained at Detroit on Thanksgiving. Bruschi sat out the Bills game and remains listed as doubtful on the current injury report. Without his services, the Patriots have only Ted Johnson and Larry Izzo as experienced inside linebackers.
Other names on the injured list include wide receiver Deion Branch (leg), guard Joe Andruzzi (knee) and defensive tackle Rick Lyle (back). All are listed as questionable.
Belichick also announced that fullback Idris Price was released from the practice squad.