Not one for excess when it comes to media relations, Patriots coach Bill Belichick issued the following statement upon learning of his team's next, and first, playoff opponent:
"Saturday night's game will be our toughest of the season."
A fairly safe assumption. New England's guests at Gillette Stadium for Saturday's AFC divisional playoff are the Tennessee Titans, who, over the past five years, have become synonymous with the word "tough." Two days ago, the Titans, a 12-4 wild-card team, ventured into Baltimore and toughed out a 20-17 win over the Ravens. The Patriots had a tough time with most of their foes this season, none more difficult than a 38-30 win over Tennessee Oct. 5 at Gillette. As the lowest remaining seed, the Titans get a rematch with New England, the top seed in the conference.
Tennessee's toughness starts with its quarterback, league co-MVP Steve McNair. He practically limped through Saturday's game after aggravating a strained right calf and a sprained left ankle. Titans coach Jeff Fisher said yesterday that McNair did not re-injure either ailment or the cracked bone spur in his left ankle that kept him out of two of the Titans' last three regular-season games. Fisher even said McNair would practice this week. Not that he needs it; he's been beaten up so much over the past few years he's gotten used to performing without rehearsal. Although he did look at tad rusty in throwing three interceptions against Baltimore; he had thrown seven all season.
Fisher said McNair was suffering from minor swelling in his ankle and soreness in his calf.
Titan toughness doesn't stop with McNair. It includes running back Eddie George. He turned in one of the gutsier efforts in league postseason history by not only returning to the game following a dislocated left shoulder, but shouldering the offensive load to the tune of 88 yards on 25 carries. George dislocated the shoulder tackling Ed Reed on McNair's second interception of the game. A team doctor put George's shoulder back in its socket, and the running back played the second half while wearing a harness.
Yesterday George underwent an MRI exam, which showed no structural damage. He, too, was experiencing soreness and swelling. Fisher said George was able to raise his arms yesterday and that he expected George to practice, as well.
"We're really in good shape," Fisher said.
The Titans, who with a win will advance to the AFC title game for the third time in the past five seasons, would have been in better shape for the next round had the Broncos lent them a hand. The Titans would have had an extra day of rest had sixth-seeded Denver beaten third-seeded Indianapolis on the road last night. But the Colts' 41-10 rout earned them a date with No. 2 Kansas City Sunday and sent the Titans to New England, site of one of the season's most exciting games.
Back and forth doesn't begin to describe the sequence of events in the fourth quarter of the Oct. 5 battle between the Patriots and Titans. It was 21-16, New England, heading into the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 31 points in the final quarter. Running back Michael Cloud, playing in his first game after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's steroid policy, relieved an injured Antowain Smith in the second half and rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries. His 15-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes 14 seconds remaining put the Patriots back in front, 31-27, after McNair's second 1-yard touchdown dive of the game 90 seconds earlier had given the Titans a 3-point lead.
The game wasn't decided until Ty Law, still hobbled by a severe ankle sprain, stepped in front of McNair's pass intended for Tyrone Calico and limped 65 yards for a touchdown. Law's play was one of the signature moments of the 2003 season for the Patriots. The win started New England on a franchise-record 12-game winning streak.
McNair was at times brilliant in throwing for 391 yards and making almost every play his team needed him to. But the Patriots were the tougher and more resilient team that afternoon. New England turned in its best rushing performance of the season, gaining 161 yards and averaging 6 per carry against the league's top-ranked -- and on this day, shorthanded -- defense against the run. The Titans reconfirmed their status as the NFL's toughest team against which to run by holding 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis to 35 Saturday.
Even with several days rest, it'll be hard for McNair to run come Saturday night. George isn't the runner he was five years ago. But the Titans, though battered, are fully capable of ending New England's run. They're a perennial playoff team that came a few feet short of winning Super Bowl XXXIV. They've won playoff games at home and on the road, close ones and blowouts.
When you think tough, you think Titans and you think Patriots. Belichick was right. It'll be a tough one.