The AFC East champion New England Patriots traveled to Tennessee this week having already secured a trip to the playoffs. The Titans, victorious over the last six weeks, had a chance to become the first team in NFL history to begin a season 0-5 and still finish 9-7. They needed a win, plus Cincinnati, Jacksonville and Denver losses to make the playoffs. The other teams all fell, but the Titans took themselves out of contention by losing as well.
The Titans took the early lead, scoring a field goal in their first possession, but Tom Brady, who rested more than usual this week after taking a hard hit to his throwing shoulder in last week's Jaguars game, had no intentions of watching this game from the sidelines.
It took a fourth-quarter interception by cornerback Asante Samuel to get Brady off the field.
"I begged for another series," said Brady after the game. "And [coach Bill Belichick] said no. He said, 'The game's tight and I want to see how Matt [Cassel] does.' Obviously, Matt responded real well so it was good to see... exciting for all the quarterbacks today."
On a second-and-12 play with 11:24 left in the game, Samuel got his fingertips on a Vince Young pass intended for backup tight end Courtney Roby, but couldn't reel it in. He made up for it on the next play, when a pass got away from Young and Samuel high-pointed it for his ninth interception of the season.
Young, who led his team to comeback victories in six of his eight wins this season, demonstrated his frustration by taking off in a dead sprint for Samuel, who was looking to gain yards on the interception. The 6-foot-5-inch, 228-pound Young met Samuel with force, clothes-lining the cornerback with his throwing arm and ending the run. Samuel would get revenge for the hit later when he grabbed a second pick from Young, finishing the Titans final drive of the season, and sealing the 40-23 win.
Backup quarterback Matt Cassel took over for Brady after Samuel's first interception, and reserve quarterback Vinny Testaverde stepped in just long enough to throw wide receiver Troy Brown a 6-yard touchdown pass. The touchdown pass marked Testaverde's 20th consecutive season with at least one touchdown pass. He became the first player in league history to throw for a touchdown in 19 straight seasons when he connected on a 27-yard scoring pass to Lavaranues Coles while playing for the New York Jets in a game against the Patriots in December of 2005.
The Patriots looked sluggish at the beginning of the game, going three-and-out on their first possession and drawing penalties in the beginning of their second drive, but then running back Corey Dillon provided a spark. He caught a short screen pass from Brady, and took off running. He gained 52 yards on the play before being brought down.
"Corey ran hard, like he always does," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick after the game. "[Dillon] ran hard, broke some tackles (and) was effective in a lot of different phases of the game. Blitz pickup. Running. Catching. He had a solid game, no question about it. I thought our backs ran well. We were able to move the ball. We had some balance in our attack, both running and passing. I'm pleased with that."
Dillon's 52-yard catch-and-run was the longest pass play of his 10 year career. His previous career long reception was a 41-yard grab, recorded while playing for Cincinnati in their 1998 season finale. The catch was also the Patriots third longest receiving play of the season. The only longer pass plays for New England this year were a 54-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Reche Caldwell at Green Bay on Nov. 19 and a 62-yard touchdown catch by Caldwell in the third quarter of this Titans game.
That 62-yard pass came immediately after Titans kicker Rob Bironas brought his team within three points of the Patriots on a field goal. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs returned the ensuing kickoff 33 yards to New England's 38-yard line. Then Brady chucked a long first down pass down field. It fell into the waiting arms of Caldwell, who dashed into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown. The pass was also a career-long for Caldwell.
"[Caldwell] did a great job down the field," said Belichick. (He) got a big pass interference call on [cornerback Cortland] Finnegan. So when you add that into the totals, that's a lot of production there for him on those down-the-field routes. We made some big plays in the passing game. We moved the ball. It wasn't perfect, but we moved the ball."
The offense moved the ball well, with Brady completing 15-of-24 for 225 yards and spreading the football around, as has been the team's winning strategy in recent weeks. Caldwell led the team with four catches for a career-high 134 yards, and running back Laurence Maroney, trading carries with Dillon, led the rushing attack with 13 attempts for 73 yards and a touchdown.
The defense, heartened when safety Rodney Harrison was injured on a second-quarter chop block from Titans wideout Bobby Wade, again demonstrated its bend-but-don't-break style of play. Harrison just returned to the game last week against the Jaguars after missing six games with a broken scapula. He also recovered from a knee injury this offseason that ended his 2005 season.
"Rodney is a strong individual," said Wade after the game. "I've got to block him in that slot position, but he takes full advantage of being able to hit somebody in the face. We're just playing. We got in a hurry-up situation. We have a run called 16-stretch where the tailback is stretching the play. I have to come in and handle the force. Rodney was the force. I squared him up, looked him dead in the eye and hit him in his thighs. It was a legal block. I talked to the ref about it and he said it was legal. It's just unfortunate that it happened. Rodney is an emotional guy."
Defensive lineman Mike Wright stepped in for Vince Wilfork for the third week in a row, holding his own on the interior, but Titans running back Travis Henry still amassed 102 yards on 21 carries.
The Patriots played strong in the red zone, forcing the Titans to attempt four field goals, the second of which went wide right, though it was only a 23-yarder. They gave up 342 net yards to the Titans offense but buckled down when they had to. The stingy defensive play held the Titans to only 32 points, good enough to secure a franchise record for the Patriots '06 defense. They only allowed 14.81 points per game this season, beating the old record of 14.88 points per game set in 2003.
Special teams allowed Titans return man Pacman Jones to take a punt return 82 yards into the end zone in the final minute of the first half. Heading into this game, New England had allowed just 16 points in the final two minutes of the first or second half, a mark that was the lowest in the NFL.
The final score was 40-23, and the Patriots will take on the Jets in the first round of the playoffs next weekend in Gillette Stadium.
Quote of note:Belichick on Testaverde's touchdown pass: "Well, we had a chance down there for Vinny to have a shot at the end zone, so we gave it to him." Testaverde was Belichick's quarterback in Cleveland from 1993 to 1995 and was reunited with him when Belichick was on the Jets coaching staff from 1997 to 1999.
Second-best season everThe Patriots finished the 2006 season with a 12-4 record. New England's 12 regular-season victories trail only the 14 wins by the 2003 and 2004 teams for the highest total in team history. New England has won 11 regular-season games on six occasions (1976, 1978, 1985, 1986, 1996, 2001).
Dillon scores, moves past Martin
Dillon scored two touchdowns in the first half, giving him 13 rushing touchdowns on the season – a mark that ties the franchise's single-season record held by Curtis Martin. Dillon had totaled 12 rushing touchdowns in each of his first two seasons with the Patriots (2004-05). Dillon's two touchdowns against the Titans raised his scoring total to 236 points since joining the Patriots prior to the 2004 season, and with his first-quarter touchdown, he passed Martin (226 points) to move into 14th place on New England's all-time scoring list. His first score was his 38th overall touchdown for New England, passing Martin (37) to move into 10th place on the club's all-time touchdowns list. With his second touchdown of the afternoon – his 39th in a Patriots uniform – Dillon tied Jim Colclough for ninth place on the team's all-time touchdowns list.
Dillon outruns The Juice
With a 7-yard run in the fourth quarter, Dillon passed O.J. Simpson to move into 14th place on the NFL's all-time rushing list. Following that run, Dillon had totaled 11,238 yards, two better than Simpson's career total of 11,236 yards. Following the game, Dillon's career total stood at 11,241 yards on 2,618 career carries.