Below is a look at some of the principals for each team that could play key roles in the outcome of this game. Patriots Will Try to Prepare for McNair
The game's most critical single player is also the co-MVP of the league this season, Titans quarterback Steve McNair (#9). As good as the Titans' defense is (it is the league's top unit against the run), it is McNair who drives the Titans and gives them an identity.
That identity is one of toughness and grit. McNair has seemingly played injured for his entire career, so much so that his "questionable" status on the team's injury report is dismissed outright. Despite an injured left ankle that includes both a sprain and cracked bone spurs, to go along with a strained calf muscle in his other leg, McNair will play.
And he will probably play well. He is good enough to overcome the three interceptions he threw in last week's Wild Card win over Baltimore, helping lead the game-wining drive (on which he was 4-for-4 for 28 yards to get the team into field goal range).
He passed for nearly 400 yards against the Patriots in their regular season match-up on October 5th, with 128 of those yards coming on just three big pass plays. The 235-pound McNair is also very difficult to bring down (a job that will fall to Patriots All-Pro defensive tackle Richard Seymour (#93)). McNair's scrambling ability, combined with a constantly keen awareness of the line of scrimmage that allows him to freeze a defense concerned about the run and pass, makes him very dangerous. He rushed for two touchdowns himself against the Patriots in their earlier game.
However, Tennessee also won the two games it played without McNair this season (against Buffalo and Tampa Bay), proving the Titans are more than just their outstanding quarterback.
The Titans' top rusher is also banged-up, having dislocated his shoulder in last week's game. Just to show how tough he is, George (#27) had the shoulder popped back into the socket and returned to play in the second half, putting up half of his 88 total yards after the injury.
But the Patriots held George to just 35 yards rushing in their first meeting on October 5th, and they did that without many of their current starters (who were out hurt back then). If the Patriots defense, a solid run-stuffing unit, decides to take George out of the game, they can do it.
If the Titans have success running the ball, it could come from a surprising source, with the element of surprise itself being an important factor in creating that success. Backup rusher Brown (#29) had Tennessee's sole rushing touchdown last week and he showed shiftiness and speed in piling up 61 yards. A third-round draft pick, rookie Brown could be just the kind of cut-back runner that can have success against the aggressive Patriots defense.
In the first game against the Patriots, Titans receiver Tyrone Calico (#87) had two catches for more than 40 yards. His longest was a 45-yard gain where he beat Patriots rookie cornerback Asante Samuel (#22). Even though Samuel had terrific position on Calico, the receiver still made the catch because the 6-foot-4 Calico simply out-jumped Samuel for the ball. He is a big, fast target for McNair who will likely see a lot of action because the Titans' top receiver, Derrick Mason (#85) will likely be blanketed by Patriots cornerback Ty Law (#24).
The Titans' massive defensive tackle will be a force to reckon with. Haynesworth (#92) weighs over 320 pounds and provides the Tennessee defensive line with a formidable run stopper. He did not play in the team's first meeting and the Patriots had their best rushing performance of the season (totaling 161 yards). Haynesworth played in just 12 games this year but garnered 2-1/2 sacks and keyed the league's top run defense, which allowed just 80.9 yards-per-game on the ground. Haynesworth also has four passes defended, showing he knows to get his hands up when he can't get them on the passer.
The Patriots offensive linemen will have their hands full keeping Haynesworth under control, responsibility for which will likely lie with left guard Damien Woody (#65). A Pro Bowler at center last year, the arrival of rookie Dan Koppen (#67) has allowed Woody to move to guard, where he has been dominant at times this season. His athleticism allows him to roll out effectively on running plays, and his quick feet and strength make him stout in pass protection.
He may just be good enough to match-up with Haynesworth one-on-one several times during the game, allowing Koppen and right guard Joe Andruzzi (#63) to double as much as possible the Titans' other dangerous interior lineman, Robaire Smith (#98), who has 4-1/2 sacks. Tank Williams and Lance Shulters
If the Patriots are to have success on offense, it could very well come against one of the league's lesser pass defenses: the Titans have the 30th-ranked defense in passing yards allowed (225 yards per game) and 25th in pass completion percentage allowed (60.8% per game). While Titans cornerback Samari Rolle (#21) (who, by the way, suffered a mild concussion last week – he will play this week but his effectiveness should be monitored) is strong in coverage, the defense is weaker down the middle of the field.
Titans strong safety Tank Williams (#25) only has 51 tackles this season, compared with 126 for Patriots strong safety Rodney Harrison (#37). Williams also has two interceptions (both of which came in the same home game in Tennessee) and four passes defended, compared to Harrison's three interceptions and eight passes defended. Baltimore notably targeted Williams in last week's game, and it was Williams who gave up a game-tying touchdown to Ravens tight end Todd Heap.
Tennessee's free safety is former San Francisco 49er Lance Shulters (#31). Although he has no interceptions, he has 65 tackles and eight passes defended. He is a good if not great rover of the deep part of the field.
The Enigmatic Daniel Graham
The perfect player to have success against a relatively weak safety unit like Tennessee's is an offense's top tight end. New England might just have that ideal target in Daniel Graham (#82). Then again, they might not.
Graham has been a frustratingly inconsistent player for the Patriots since his selection in the first round of the 2002 draft. He was hurt much of his rookie year and was expected to break out in 2003. But while he had some game-changing and even game-winning moments this season, he also had some critical drops.
Graham had 38 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns this season. He had a great touchdown catch against Jacksonville in a December 14th game that helped propel a Patriots win, but he also dropped a vital fourth-down pass that cost the Patriots a chance to overcome the Washington Redskins in a September 28th loss.
The game that was most emblematic of Graham's up-and-down performances was a Patriots win in Houston. Graham nearly cost the team the game yet was also responsible for the big plays that made the overtime victory a possibility.
In that game, Graham caught the first ball thrown to him but then missed the next four straight, one of which came on a third down, stalling a Patriots drive on the edge of the Houston red zone. He followed that, though, with three straight catches. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (#12) showed that he still has confidence in the big man (Graham is a startlingly fast 6-3, 253 pounds), finding Graham for a hugely important 33 yard gain that kept a drive alive, then hitting Graham again on fourth down for the tying touchdown.
Against the Jets three weeks ago, Graham was wide open sprinting down the middle of the field. He dropped the pass despite Brady putting the ball on his fingertips (had Graham made the catch, it probably would have put that game away). That is the kind of route he can successfully run against this Titans defense but it is also the kind of catch the team desperately needs him to make.
In place of Graham, the team could look to three other players to make this kind of big play.
The first is tight end Christian Fauria (#88). He is not as fast as Graham but has reliable hands and has proven willing to make nearly every tough catch across the middle. He has 28 catches for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
The second is the ever-reliable receiver Troy Brown (#80), who specializes in the dramatic play and excels in gaining yards after the catch. He always seems to be able to find a hole in a defensive secondary to sit down in or sprint through, giving Brady a steady target.
Against Jacksonville, for instance, the Patriots faced a third-and-20, a down-and-distance that teams are not supposed to be able to make. But sure enough, there was Brown and Brady connected with him for 23 yards and a first down. Brady-to-Brown also converted a fourth-and-14 in that game, another down-and-distance combination that should be next to impossible to overcome. Injuries limited him to just 40 catches in 12 games played this season, but he is healthy now and as dangerous a weapon as the Patriots have in their offensive arsenal.
The third player to watch for deep against Tennessee is a bit of a sleeper. Receiver David Givens (#87) has come from obscurity as a former seventh-round draft pick to become the Patriots' leading touchdown scorer with six this season. Givens is also the team's most physical wide receiver, using his 6-foot, 212 pound frame very effectively in both downfield blocking and gaining separation from defenders to make a catch.
He broke out on November 3rd in Denver, scoring the winning touchdown. And he has only improved since then, making a spectacular sideline grab against Dallas in a mid-November win and had his first multi-touchdown game (with two) against the Jets three weeks ago. He has the size and speed to run a middle seam route of the kind for which Graham is ideally suited to attack the Titans.
There are a host of other players to watch for on both sides of the ball as well on special teams. The above should provide some guidance for players to key on during the game but don't miss a minute of the action because you never know when a new hero will be born.