New England Patriots Team Report

The timing of this week's matchup could not be worse for the Patriots. Nine starters missed last week's game at Washington and one more, running back Kevin Faulk, went down along with reserve receiver David Givens, who was getting more playing time because starter David Patten was among the already-injured nine.

So with injuries piling up faster than the snow in a New England Nor'easter, a Sunday at 1 p.m. meeting with one of the most physical teams in football -- the Tennessee Titans -- wouldn't exactly be the get-well medicine the football doctors would prescribe.

The Patriots can't even cling to the hope playing at home in Gillette Stadium gives them after playing on the road three times in the first four weeks because the Titans, who have won 13 of their last 15, are the best road team in the NFL over the last eight-plus years with a 37-28 road record during that time.

"Their record over the past few years speaks for itself as does their record on the road," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "This is an impressive football team. They're a big, strong, physical team that does a good job in all three phases of the game. We're going to have to match their physical play. We'll have to meet force with force. You do that with your attitude and by being confident and knowing what you are doing so you can be aggressive."

Tennessee manhandled the Patriots last December, and that defeat is still fresh in the Patriots minds. Recalling that 24-7 loss, however, won't necessarily serve as motivation but could have the opposite effect. The Patriots were pounded on both sides of the ball in that game by a team that was at a different level physically. Tennessee ran 48 times for 238 yards and held the ball for a mind-boggling 41:30 while limiting Tom Brady to 14-of-29 passing for 134 yards and an interception that was returned for a touchdown.

"You always want to play well against a team that beat you the time before," Belichick said. "But we just have to get ourselves back on track and correct our mistakes and play better. We've talked about (last year's game) and obviously if it goes like it did last time, we won't be happy with the result."

The depleted Patriots can be forgiven if they're not exactly ready for an all-out street fight with a team capable of pushing it down and then stepping on its throat even when healthy, but sympathizers are hard to come by in a league where injuries are rightly dismissed as "part of the game."

Tennessee certainly won't feel bad for New England. In fact the Titans will likely be looking forward to the matchup advantages they hold on paper before one hit or tackle is even made. One such matchup is the one that pits MVP-caliber quarterback Steve McNair against a banged up Patriots defense.

McNair is the perfect quarterback for a Titans team that cares less about statistics and more about beating you up, beating you down and just plain beating you. He is big, strong, efficient, dangerous and displays a George Patton-type toughness and leadership. He stands in the pocket and delivers the ball in the face of rushers, he runs free and takes on tacklers and he is the man who carries Tennessee's offense.

"He's throwing it well, spreading it around and has shown the ability to go deep," Belichick said. "But he is doing well on third down and he's efficient."

Belichick is fond of saying that a defense can always pick one thing and stop it, but it will be exposed in other areas in the process. But since McNair does so much, it's difficult to pick even one thing to stop and then actually stop it.

In Week 2, the Patriots focused their defensive game plan on stopping strong, mobile Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and did a marvelous job executing the plan. The Patriots pressured the pocket and gave McNabb little or no room to operate when he took his short drops looking to unload the football. Belichick is certain to take a similar tact against McNair, but the Titans offense is not based solely on McNair's ability to make plays even if he's the reason the Titans do indeed make them.

Eddie George, while not the dynamic big-play back of yesteryear, is still a presence in the backfield and has rushed for 100 yards in each of his two meetings against the Patriots. He is a runner that would rather go through you than around you and looks to hit you rather than be hit. It may not lead to big statistics, but it breaks down and more importantly, wears down a defense, giving the Titans an advantage later in games when many are decided.

That running attack also may be the biggest factor in Tennessee's road success because that style of play is immune to crowd noise and when even remotely successful, it shortens the game and makes the home crowd less of a factor.

With injuries to nose tackle Ted Washington, middle linebacker Ted Johnson and outside linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel leaving the Patriots front seven in shambles, George will be getting his share of chances to pound it at a less talented and thin front seven that has little in the way of fresh reserves to shuttle in and out of the game. With expectations for a promising Patriots team spiraling downward, it won't take much for the home crowd to lose faith.

This game will be more than a test of the Patriots talent and depth, but a test of their toughness, character and physical stature. It may not be the matchup they would wish for given their problems, but it is a test, that if passed, could propel the Patriots forward with enough momentum to carry them until some of the broken bones are healed.

HISTORY: 36th meeting. Patriots lead all-time series, 18-16-1, but lost last year, 24-7, in Nashville. The Patriots are 13-6-1 all-time against the Oilers/Titans at home and beat the then Tennessee Oilers 27-16 in the last meeting in Foxborough. New England has won five of its last six home games against the Oilers/Titans.

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