On a bitterly cold evening, the New England Patriots did just enough to narrowly escape a win over a battle tested and well armed Titans team. New England struggled on offense the last three quarters of the game but found a way to move the ball on the game winning drive.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did not have his best game of the season. In fact, he was 21 of 41 with one touchdown and only 201 yards passing. But in the first quarter, Brady found rookie wide receiver Bethel Johnson on a perfectly executed play fake that froze the Titans safeties long enough for a 41-yard touchdown pass that gave New England a 7-0 lead.
The Patriots defense looked average as McNair picked apart the secondary. But McNair made a crucial mistake after the Titans defense stopped the Patriots offense. Trying for a home run ball, McNair had a pass picked off by safety Rodney Harrison that seemed to give the Patriots a lift.
The Titans defense took on the task of stopping the Patriots and the second most crucial play of the game occurred that would change the fortunes of the game. Facing a third and twelve, Brady hit Johnson crossing the middle. Johnson caught the ball underneath the coverage and ran to his right. But with the Titans swarming, Johnson reversed his field and Brady threw a key block that allowed the drive to continue. It did and ended when Antowain Smith ran the ball in from the 1-yard line for a 14-7 lead.
The Titans had a chance to make the score 14-10 at halftime but another special teams breakdown cost Tennessee from getting three valuable points. Last weeks hero Gary Anderson had his 31-yard field goal blocked when the Titans allowed Richard Seymour to get through the line untouched and he blocked the kick.
The Titans came out in the second half with more passion. After stopping the Patriots offense, McNair found Derrick Mason on a 13-yard touchdown catch and run that tied the score at 14-14.
After a turnover by the Patriots and momentum changing, the Titans imploded on offense as they could not manage to take advantage of their golden opportunity. The Patriots defense made the plays.
The teams went back and forth trading possessions in the final quarter before the Patriots finally cranked up the offense. With a short field to work with, after a poor Titans punt, Brady kept the final drive alive when he executed a forth down pass that gave the Patriots new life. The Titans defense stiffened but Vinatiera kicked what would be the game winner as his boot barely cleared the left corner of the cross bar for a 17-14 lead.
The Titans though were not done. But McNair had one more drive in him. He quickly moved the Titans in Patriots territory but a series of penalties killed the Titans final drive. McNair was called for intentional grounding. Then after completing a third and eleven pass that fell one-yard short of a first down, the referees called a blatantly poor holding call on the Titans.
That pushed the Titans back even further. But McNair found Drew Bennett who tip-toed down the sidelines to make his second circus catch on the drive. Bennett's catch gave the Titans one last down. Facing a fourth and twelve, the Patriots Rodney Harrison blitzed and McNair was forced to throw the ball before he was set.
He threw a wounded duck that was in the arms of Bennett but he could not hold onto the ball. After making two spectacular catches in the series, Bennett dropped the easiest pass of the night. The Patriots were very fortunate they were not called for pass interference. As Bennett was going up, his arm was pulled away by a Patriots defender and that broke up his concentration.
The Patriots ran out the clock and secured one more home game for the New England fans.
The Patriots will play the winner of the Kansas City Chiefs/Indianapolis Colts game and they'll need a much better offensive performance to beat either one of those teams.
New England has to feel fortunate to win this game but these are the type of wins that they've had all season long. They win close games and have relied on their defense to step up and the offense to be just good enough to get the job done.
Next weekend that won't be an option as the Colts and Chiefs can score 17 points in a quarter on any defense and the Patriots offense must be more efficient.
But that's next week and today the Patriots can celebrate their playoff victory.