There have been subtle schematic alterations as the teams adapted to what worked well and what didn't. Players have changed positions. But the one thing that hasn't changed one bit is the physical style both teams emphasize, which will make for a tough game in frigid Foxborough Saturday night at Gillette Stadium where temperatures are expected to be about a brisk 0-8 degrees at game time.
Back in balmy October, the 2-2 injury-depleted Patriots were still trying to prove they could play that physical brand of football while the 3-1 Titans had long cemented their reputation. That game represented a turning point for New England, which ran for a season-high 161 yards and never lost again. Now the Patriots hope that the team it defeated to start a 12-game winning streak doesn't end that streak as well.
A few days before the first meeting, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said his team would have to "meet force with force" as he challenged his club to match the Titans physical style. He can scheme and game plan all he wants this week, but if his club fails to "meet force with force" again Saturday night as it did in Week 5, it will see its championship aspirations end on a disappointing note.
"They play very physical," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "You have to earn everything you get from them. You saw what they could do to Baltimore -- they can shut down a guy that can rush for 2,000 yards and make the quarterback turn the ball over a few times. Defensively, they are as good as it gets."
The Titans finished the season ranked 12th defensively, but while they were 30th against the pass, they were first against the run. That's a tad deceiving, however, because rankings are based on yards allowed and teams had to throw more to move the ball against a defense that allowed just 81 rushing yards per game. Consider that opponents ran just 342 times against Tennessee while throwing 546 times -- a difference of 204 attempts.
But New England, which barely averaged 100 rushing yards per game in 2003 and ranked 27th in rushing offense, ran for 161 and threw for 219 in the first meeting in an impressive, and even rare, offensive display. They can't expect that kind of rushing effort again this week, especially since that game was clearly an aberration for Tennessee's defense. So Brady and the Patriots ninth ranked passing attack will have to hit the Titans through the air, which will put pressure on a young offensive front to slow a fast, tough front seven that finished the season with 38 sacks, two of which came against the Patriots.
On top of their physical stoutness, the Titans are mentally tough and confident playing within a system that has been in place for nine years under head coach Jeff Fisher. They are one of the best road teams in the NFL under Fisher with a 42-31 record over the last nine seasons. They also went on the road and beat the Ravens in a physical game last weekend and are 3-1 in playoff road games since 1999, including an AFC Championship win at 14-2 Jacksonville in '99.
"Obviously they are tough," Belichick said of the Titans road success. "They are mentally tough and have all the elements of a good football team. They have won a lot of games at home too. They are good on defense. They are good on offense. They are good on special teams. They are well coached. They are tough. They are physical. Other than that, I don't know what they have going for them."
If you listen to Belichick, the Patriots shouldn't even show up to play against the juggernaut Titans. But New England is pretty solid across the board behind its seventh ranked defense and it also plays a physical brand of football, which should make for a competitive game likely to come down to field position and turnovers. The Patriots normally hold an advantage in that type of game because they are so well coached, mentally tough and generally take care of the football. But the Titans are one of the few teams that match up well with the Patriots in that type of game, which negates an advantage New England has against many other teams.
New England's 24 giveaways were the sixth fewest in the NFL, but the Titans gave it away only 21 times all season and the teams ranked second (New England) and third (Tennessee) in the NFL in turnover ratio.
While Tennessee can hit you with a big play through the air, it is content to let running back Eddie George pound away at a defense like a boxer throwing body punches. Once the defense staggers a bit, quarterback Steve McNair throws the roundhouse to the jaw for a knockout blow using a steady corps of big receivers.
George may not be the explosive back he was in his younger days, but he still carried the ball more than 300 times in 2003 and still craves contact as a physical runner willing to take on a defender and make the first hit rather than be hit. His health could be an issue this week since he dislocated his shoulder in the win over Baltimore.
"He didn't look like he lost a step to me when he was running into Ray Lewis like that," Patriots cornerback Ty Law said. "Eddie George saves his best for last. He has been pretty consistent. He runs hard and he can go out and do that with a (dislocated) shoulder. He plays through pain. He might be on the injury report, but I guarantee you Eddie George will be there ready to play."
George ran 15 times for only 35 yards against New England back in October while McNair was throwing for 391 yards and he only averaged 3.3 yards per carry this season. He seems to have lost his big-play explosion, but he did run it 25 times for an effective 88 yards last week against a physical, emotionally charged Ravens defense that was feeding off its home crowd, and some of that yardage came with a harness keeping his injured shoulder in place.
"Eddie George will be there," Belichick stated emphatically. "The damn guy started 100-and-how-many straight games? He was running over everybody against Baltimore. He left the game in the second quarter and ran over everybody in the second half. Whatever is wrong with him, give me some of it."
Belichick believes it is more important to look at the Titans last four games than to see what they were doing back in September or even October when the clubs first met and George was averaging less than 3 yards per carry.
"They have been very good in the running game," he noted. "They have had a high time of possession in their last four games -- all wins. They have played strong defensively against the run. They have been very productive in the kicking game especially as they have added Derrick Mason back in there as a punt returner. Their specialists are excellent. I think that is where their team is now."
And Saturday night at 8:15, that team will be in Foxborough looking for another road playoff win. If New England could have picked its opponent, it wouldn't likely have picked the Titans, but these are two evenly matched teams that can not only match wits but also can play any brand of football needed to win, which helps in close games and should certainly make for an entertaining evening.
This is the 37th meeting between New England and Tennessee. The Patriots lead series 19-16-1 and have won the last two in Foxborough and are 14-6-1 against the Titans/Oilers all time at home. The teams met one other time in the postseason, back in 1978, when the then-Oilers dealt New England's its only home playoff loss in five games, winning 31-14 at Schaefer Stadium. This will be the third meeting since Dec. 16, 2002 and the clubs split the first two, each winning at home.