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ON FOOTBALL

Cold won't shape whether they win

FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots will have several advantages when they square off with the Tennessee Titans tonight in Ice Bowl II, but the weather won't be one of them.

Freezing temperatures might have been a playoff aid for New England against a team that hails from Nashville because the Titans have played only three games below 35 degrees in their history, but subzero temperatures, like those expected tonight, would only help a team based in Alaska. No one, not the Patriots, not the Titans, probably not even the Green Bay Packers, benefits from the kind of deep freeze Razor Blade Field will be in.

Live all you want in New England, it won't stop Deion Branch's fingers from freezing or the football from feeling like a rock when it's in Kevin Faulk's possession. Spend every winter ice fishing at Walden Pond and it won't help Tedy Bruschi when he goes to tackle somebody and it feels like a frozen arm just fell off the side of his body. To Cowboy Up is one thing. To Eskimo Up is something different.

Yet that is not to say the Patriots don't have advantages going into this game. They do. They just have nothing to do with the Titans' need to load up on arctic attire.

First, and perhaps most ironic, considering how the season began, the Patriots may be the healthiest team in the postseason. Certainly they are the healthiest of these two teams.

For much of the first half of the season, New England was decimated by injuries, yet it survived and ended up winning its final 12 games and home-refrigerator advantage. The Titans, however, limp in with running back Eddie George suffering from a dislocated left shoulder and quarterback Steve McNair moving about as nimbly as Ted Washington.

Such things as shoulders removed from the socket or calves torn asunder do not heal quickly even under optimum conditions. Certainly a wind chill like tonight's won't enhance the limbering-up process for joints and muscles. Advantage New England.

Much has been made of the condition of McNair, who will be playing with a bad calf, bad ankle, and sore shoulder, which he has developed because he has been forced to throw without being able to get the leverage from his legs. .

Certainly for a team that relies so heavily on McNair's accurate deep passing and his ability to run when defenses shut down his receivers, those are significant disadvantages, but they will be counterbalanced by the fact that Tom Brady isn't feeling all that well himself. Although little has been said on the homefront, the fact is the knee Lawyer Milloy fell into two weeks ago remains a problem for Brady, whose mobility will be limited.

Brady, however, is not the running threat McNair is and his game does not revolve around the deep ball the way Tennessee's offense does, so although he is hurt, his injuries are not as likely to hinder his play as are McNair's.

The second advantage is also an odd one. Tennessee has nearly as fearsome a defense as New England and is the stingiest run defense in the league, allowing an average of only 80.9 yards per game. A week ago, it held the league's leading rusher, Jamal Lewis, to 35 yards to end a season in which he ran for more than 2,000. To say they are effective is like saying it's going to be nippy tonight.

Normally, such a dominating run defense would be a major advantage in a game like this, but in this case, styles make the fight and what the Titans do best on defense, the Patriots don't do at all on offense.

New England's running game is really its short passing game, the one that makes use of slip screens and hitches to its wide receivers that develop so quickly defensive backs have trouble reacting, and defenses have trouble getting reinforcements to the open spaces. Tennessee has two solid cornerbacks in Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson, but when it is forced to use its nickel and dime packages, problems develop because its safeties are not sound in coverage and its fifth and sixth defensive backs have been shaky most of the season.

That is why the Titans have allowed 242.4 yards per game passing and are ranked among the worst pass defenses in football. For Tennessee, the great equalizer has been the pass rush from its front four. The Titans have 38 sacks and have gotten 25 from their down linemen, leaving the linebackers free to help in coverage.

In fairness to the Titans, because they have stopped the run so effectively the statistics are skewed, making their pass defense look more porous than it is, but if New England offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is able to force Tennessee to play with five or more defensive backs much of the night, the advantage will belong to him and Brady as long as the offensive line gives Brady time to throw.

In the first meeting, Brady was not his usual self in part because he was sacked three times and pushed around or rushed on many other occasions. That situation could become worse tonight because Tennessee did not have huge defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth at that time. Although he is not a great pass rusher, Haynesworth is able to collapse the pocket, thus preventing Brady from stepping up to avoid edge rushers Jevon Kearse and Kevin Carter. That situation has to be controlled by the offensive line or all of New England's advantages will be negated.

But assuming New England controls the Titans' front four and forces their secondary into nickel and dime coverages, the odds favor the home team because what they do best -- throw the ball -- Tennessee does worst -- defend it. Add to that the physical ailments of McNair and George, a raucous home crowd, and the fact that New England has been off for two weeks while Tennessee had to play an extremely physical game against Baltimore, and it would appear a trip to the AFC Championship game is all uphill for the Titans.

Finally, in New England's 38-30 win over Tennessee Oct. 5, rookie Bethel Johnson had kick returns of 50 and 71 yards and Troy Brown returned a punt for a touchdown that was called back. It seems unlikely the Patriots will be able to produce that much return yardage again, but there would seem to be a special teams advantage for New England.

New England has the advantages but whether those translate into victory is another matter. That will be settled by who makes the fewest mistakes and whose frozen fingers most often keep a rock-hard football in their grasp. On nights like this, games are most often decided not by brilliance but by a mistake.

Who makes it is anyone's guess, but don't bet against the team that's healthier and does best what you do worst. In this case, that would be the Olde Towne Team.

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