Pats' top seeding not sure to bear fruit

January 10, 2004|By Alan Greenberg | Alan Greenberg,HARTFORD COURANT

FOXBORO, Mass. - There is a sense of urgency around the New England Patriots. It has been two weeks since they demolished the Buffalo Bills, wrapped up the best regular season (14-2) in franchise history, and were given four days off after earning the AFC's No. 1 seed.

Beyond that, the Patriots have earned nothing, and they know it. Coach Bill Belichick has told them about the 1996 Broncos, who were the AFC's No. 1 seed, but didn't make it to the AFC championship game because they were upset by the underdog Jacksonville Jaguars in Denver, where the Broncos were supposed to be darn near invincible.

"The difference is, now it's a one-game season," Patriots linebacker/end Willie McGinest said. "You lose and you go home. We don't have 15, 12 or nine more games to try to get back on track. If you do something wrong or have a bad game, you don't have another game to say, `I'll just get it next game.' "

Tonight, before 68,000 half-frozen Patriots fans and a prime-time national television audience, the Tennessee Titans are poised to end the Patriots' season two steps shy of their goal, a second Super Bowl in three seasons.

The 2001 Patriots were 11-5 in the regular season, and in terms of depth and talent, were inferior to the 2003 Patriots, who played part of the season without as many as nine injured starters, yet finished the season with a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that began when they beat the Titans, 38-30, at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 5.

Despite all of their accomplishments, which include being undefeated at home (8-0) for the first time, history will not remember these Patriots fondly, if at all, unless they can get back to the Super Bowl.

Tonight's game will be the coldest in Foxboro history. Game-time temperatures are expected to be near zero, with an expected wind chill index of 20-30 below. Before leaving Nashville this week, the Titans practiced in the late afternoon in 30-degree temperatures.

That's practically sunbathing compared to what awaits them tonight. But Titans coach Jeff Fisher, like Belichick, downplays weather as a factor.

"We haven't had difficulty in the cold as long as I have been here," Fisher said. "I think it is primarily because quarterback Steve McNair has big hands and he likes playing in the cold. It is not an issue to him. He has had some of his better days in inclement weather. We know it is going to be challenging when the temperature drops, but I do not pay much attention to it. I believe the players will be prepared mentally for it and they will go out and play hard. We do have a number of players from Florida that we are going to leave behind. We will bring them up on Saturday and we will put them up in a suite someplace."

Fisher was joking. Like Belichick's Patriots, almost nothing rattles Fisher's Titans.

Among coaches, only the Steelers' Bill Cowher has held his present job longer than Fisher, who is finishing his ninth season. Like Belichick, Fisher, 45, a Bears defensive back for five seasons, made his reputation as a defensive coordinator. Like the Patriots, the Titans feature a rugged defense, a quarterback who makes big plays and a group of unheralded receivers who make up for their team's lack of a consistent running game.

You think the Patriots feel unappreciated, having only two of their players initially voted to the Pro Bowl? Last season, when they lost to the Raiders in the AFC championship game, the Titans had no players voted to the Pro Bowl.

"What you try to do, and this is exactly what the Patriots have done, is you try to get your core group of players intact. We have done that with Eddie George and Steve and the offensive line and of course, some of the defensive players. ... We have a philosophy of play much like New England and I think it just shows. If you keep playing and you play physical and you play smart and you don't allow wins and losses to contribute to losing your perspective on things, I think you have a chance to win a lot of games," he said.

Only one of them will win tonight. But both organizations probably will continue to prosper. The Patriots and Titans are built for the long haul.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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