Patriots hold off Titans

Vinatieri's late field goal wins AFC game, 17-14

Nfl Playoffs

January 11, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

FOXBORO, Mass. - The script the New England Patriots have used for victory much of the past three seasons came into play again last night.

New England, whose success has been credited to structure, schemes and grit more than overwhelming talent, outlasted the Tennessee Titans, 17-14, in an AFC divisional playoff game played in bitterly cold, hard-fought conditions in front of 66,165 at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots will play host to the winner of today's Indianapolis Colts-Kansas City Chiefs game next Sunday in the AFC championship game.

"I thought it would be the toughest game of the year, and it was," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Tennessee is a very good football team."

Adam Vinatieri had a foot in the outcome again. The kicker who carried New England on its drive to the Super Bowl title two years ago booted a 46-yard field goal with 4:06 left to send the Patriots (15-2) into their second AFC championship game in three years.

Though the Patriots and Belichick are not exactly considered the league's biggest risk-takers, they took their biggest, and what could have been costliest, chance of the season moments earlier on a fourth-and-three from the Tennessee 33-yard line.

With the score 14-14 with just over five minutes left, Belichick put the season in the hands of his cool-under-pressure quarterback Tom Brady, who stood firm in the pocket and effortlessly completed a 4-yard out pattern to Troy Brown for the first down.

That play helped set up an eventual winning kick by Vinatieri. After missing on a 44-yard try in the first half, he barely knuckled the decisive kick through the uprights, re-affirming his reputation as one of the NFL's best clutch kickers.

Two years ago, Vinatieri converted a 45-yard field goal in snowy conditions to beat the Oakland Raiders in an AFC divisional game, then lifted the Patriots to the NFL championship with his 48-yard field goal as time expired to defeat the St. Louis Rams.

"We felt like we had a good chance to get points on the board," Belichick said last night. "We put one of our best players out there."

"It ended up being a little closer than I thought," Vinatieri said of the field goal. "It came down to the wire. It really didn't have a whole lot of room."

New England held off a late rally by the Titans (13-5), one that was hurt severely by a sketchy intentional grounding penalty on quarterback Steve McNair on one play, followed by a holding penalty on Benji Olson on the next.

Those plays set up a Titans fourth-and-12 attempt from the New England 33. Quarterback Steve McNair's desperate pass attempt to Drew Bennett against on oncoming blitz fell incomplete at the 16-yard line.

"That was a tough way to end it," said Bennett, who got both hands on the pass but failed to bring it in. "I should have made that play, but I didn't."

That play allowed New England, a winner of 13 consecutive games, to play host to its second AFC championship game in three years. The Patriots also improved to 9-0 at Gillette this season.

"All our games are pretty physical and tough," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "This one had more at stake. If you lose, you go home. If you win, you keep going."

Last night's home-field advantage came in a franchise record-low temperature of 2 degrees (with a wind chill factor of minus-11 degrees) in front of a stadium about 90 percent full.

"I think it obviously wasn't easy," linebacker Mike Vrabel said. "Your concentration just needed to be that much higher, and I think both teams were up to the task of handling the weather."

The atmosphere seemed to adversely affect the Titans early. Appearing to still be basking in the 20-17 win over the Ravens in the wild-card round last week, the Titans had a penalty, a dropped pass and an overthrown ball by McNair on their first possession.

Brady then led a six-play, 69-yard touchdown drive, finding receiver Bethel Johnson on a 41-yard touchdown reception.

"Not all rookies get to come in and catch a touchdown pass, so I feel very blessed," Johnson said.

Brady played a near-flawless first half, completing 12 of 23 attempts for 166 yards and guiding two touchdown drives. He also threw a key block on safety Lance Schulters that helped convert a third-and-13 on the Patriots' second touchdown drive.

"I was just trying to get in the way on that one," Brady said.

McNair, meanwhile, kept his team in the game by responding to the Patriots' first score with a 61-yard touchdown drive.

Still hampered by a lingering ankle injury, he completed passes of 15 and 24 yards to Derrick Mason and Bennett, respectively, then watched as rookie Chris Brown capped off the drive with a 5-yard run to tie the score at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.

McNair's best work, though, came on the Titans' first possession of the second half. After forcing a Patriots punt to start the third quarter, McNair led a 70-yard drive, fighting through two false start and a delay-of-game penalty to march down to the Patriots' 11 on a third-and-10.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.