The Patriots have home field advantage in the upcoming game by virtue of their AFC- (and league-) best 14-2 regular season record and the skill of the now-official NFL Coach of the Year Bill Belichick.
Before the Patriots look ahead to the game, they would do well to take a somber lesson from recent history. Two years ago, the Chicago Bears surprised the league and earned a first round playoff bye thanks to a 13-3 record.
The week before their first playoff game, Bears head coach Dick Jauron was named Coach of the Year. Despite having the bye, a top coach (according to the then-consensus), and home field advantage, the Bears lost that first, and as it turned out only, playoff game, to the Philadelphia Eagles.
There is a difference between the Bears' and Patriots' situations, however. Coach Jauron deservedly won the award that year after taking his team from "worst to first," a league cellar-dweller in 2000 turned playoff team in 2001. The Bears did not have playoff experience. (Ironically, the coach that Jauron beat-out for Coach of the Year in 2001 was Bill Belichick, who was also deserving of the award as that team went on to win the Super Bowl.)
Bill Belichick won the award this year because he achieved a remarkable level of success with a very banged-up squad. The Patriots fielded 43 different starters over the course of the season, the most of any team in the league, due to injuries. He also overcame serious potential distractions, such as the disruptive departure of long-time safety Lawyer Milloy just days before the season's first game.
Belichick got these various pieces to fit into one mold that formed a tough, resilient football team. Perhaps more importantly, the players that were injured (other than those that were forced to injured reserve and lost for the season) are for the most part now back to full strength.
The Titans, however, have more question marks in the injury department than do the now-healthy Patriots. The most significant are those nagging at quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George. The Titans' two offensive stars both have injuries that could affect their playing status or productivity this weekend.
In McNair's case, the 9-year veteran has seemingly played with injuries throughout his career. This season, he missed three games including two of the last three games of the season, with a strained calf and, more severely, a sprained left ankle. He has been kept out of most of his team's practices and it showed in last Saturday's playoff game. Although he completed nearly 61% of his passes he also threw three interceptions. To his credit, he led the game-winning field goal drive at the end of regulation, but he was also almost single-handedly responsible for the near-loss.
After the game, Titans head coach Jeff Fischer said that McNair was sore and experiencing swelling in the injured ankle. Coach Fischer expects McNair to practice this week, though.
To the extent that McNair was able to disguise his condition somewhat during the game, it was because he had enormous help from his running game, which put up a combined total of 165 yards. However, like McNair, lead runner George is banged-up as well.
In fact, it appeared he was lost for the remainder of the Ravens game and perhaps the season when, early in the second quarter, he was injured while tackling Baltimore safety Ed Reed following Reed's interception of a McNair pass. George grimaced while holding his shoulder and was eventually taken to the locker room; he reportedly had a dislocated shoulder and the doctor afterwards said that he literally popped the shoulder back into the socket on the sideline.
Yet George returned to start the second half and finished with 88 yards on 25 carries, 14 of which came after his shoulder injury. More important than his return, perhaps, was the way in which he returned, with his signature bruising, punishing running style bulling his way through the Ravens' defenders, gaining three of the team's six second-half first downs.
Still, George's shoulder is a concern. Coach Fischer told the media that George was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exam on Sunday and that they found "nothing structurally wrong" with his shoulder. He is sore and the shoulder area is swollen, and he will likely miss some practice time this week. George is expected to play on Saturday night in Foxboro but may do so with his arm protected by a harness. It will be interesting to see whether the cold, with temperatures expected to hover between zero and five degrees, will affect his comfort level and resulting performance.
Backup running back Chris Brown, a rookie third-round pick, also provided 11 carries and an impressive 5.5 yards-per-carry average. He had the team's lone rushing touchdown and a long run of 16 yards against a tough Ravens defense that was sixth-best in the league this year. Brown provides a quality change of pace to George, but if the team has to rely on Brown it could spell trouble for the Titans.
These are not the only injuries of note for the Titans. The most significant is probably cornerback Samari Rolle, who had a head injury and suffered a mild concussion. He had an interception against the Ravens and led the team with six picks this season. He is expected to miss some playing time but will likely be available for the game in New England.
Next in order of concern would be starting guard Zach Pillar, who suffered a mild knee sprain and a bruised chest in Saturday's game.
On the positive side, backup running back Robert Holcombe, who has been hampered by a hamstring injury that kept him out of the game against the Ravens, is ready to return to the field. He had more carries during the regular season than did Brown (63 to 56) but for fewer yards (201 to 221), but he also had a touchdown this season while Brown's first touchdown of his career came this past Saturday.
The Titans were missing some key players in their first match-up with New England, including 320-pound defensive tackle Al Haynesworth (the hard-to-miss #92), linebacker Peter Sirmon, and cornerback Samari Rolle. Each of these players participated in the win over Baltimore.
Rolle was the Titans' second-leading tackler in the victory and he had the interception noted above. Haynesworth had three tackles and an 8-yard sack. Sirmon had just three total tackles and was also called for a questionable pass-interference penalty, but showed that he can play in space, something the Patriots will have to account for since they use frequent screens and short crossing patterns.
But the Titans are in no position to complain about injuries to the Patriots, who, as noted above, have rotated through a league-high 43 starters this season and were without more key players in the game against Tennessee earlier this year than the Titans were. The Patriots won 38-30 despite playing without defensive tackle Ted Washington, linebackers Ted Johnson, Mike Vrabel, and Willie McGinest, running back Kevin Faulk and tight end Daniel Graham due to a variety of injuries.
The Patriots lost players during that game, too. By halftime, they were without Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law as well, who limped off the field after aggravating the ankle that he had nearly broken two weeks earlier in a win over the New York Jets. And later in the third quarter, running back Antowain Smith went to the sidelines with a shoulder injury that landed him on the inactive list for the following two weeks.
The fact that all of these Patriots players will be fully ready come Saturday does not guarantee their success, nor do the injuries to the Titans' leaders. But New England's health will be a factor in the game and the Tennessee injury report will bear watching as this week progresses.