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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Bitter Piller sure to have company

FOXBOROUGH -- There are lots of Zach Pillers in football America. There are lots of people who see the Patriots grind their way to 13 wins in a row and wonder if this truly is the face of dominance.

It's OK. There are going to be Pillers in your office, school, and barbershop. There are going to be Pillers in Kansas City and Indianapolis. There are going to be Pillers from here all the way to Reliant Stadium in Houston.

Get used to it. And be secure enough to accept that -- with all due respect -- these people are clueless.

"Everyone was talking about their defense," Piller, a Tennessee guard, said after the Patriots' 17-14 win last night at Gillette Stadium. "I thought it sucked. It'd be a shock to me if they were holding the trophy at the end of all this."

Maybe local folks won't be as harsh, but you'll hear variations of the Bitter Piller Theory throughout the region this week. The Patriots won their divisional playoff, but the game truly was decided in the final minute.

New England had a difficult time defending the Titans when they went to a spread formation. They had a difficult time defending a "jerk route" the Titans would continually run to convert third downs. At the end of the night, they probably thanked themselves for living right, because there is no question that receiver Drew Bennett dropped a fourth-down pass from Steve McNair that could have won the game for Tennessee.

But it doesn't matter. That is what the Pillers of football analysis can't understand. They see the NFL through a fantasy football prism and are incapable of accepting anything else.

The Patriots will play in the AFC Championship game a week from today because their defense is good, not great. They will find themselves 60 minutes from their second Super Bowl in three years because they are the masters of subtlety, not greatness. Anyone who is looking for the Fearsome Foursome or the Steel Curtain or even the speedy Cowboys of the early 1990s should contact NFL Films.

Anyway, what did people expect? Jeff Fisher's Titans -- a team that won 12 games in the regular season -- to curl up and retreat to Nashville? The reporters who cover Bill Belichick have become accustomed to the coach praising an opponent, regardless of that team's status.

Belichick will call the Cleveland Browns explosive. He'll call the Indianapolis Colts explosive. He'll call the Houston Texans explosive. Earlier this week, he said the Titans game would be the toughest his team played all year.

He was as down the middle as an Adam Vinatieri field goal. He was not exaggerating.

In this NFL, where dominance is relative and in the eye of the beholder, the Titans are capable of winning a Super Bowl. They won't, simply because the Patriots are better. The Patriots' mistakes were the dropped balls of Daniel Graham and a Graham fumble that was recovered by the Titans. Tennessee's mistakes were a McNair interception, a Gary Anderson field goal attempt that was blocked, and an outrageous -- for such a close game -- nine penalties for 55 yards.

In other words, the Patriots don't make as many mistakes as other teams. And it drives the Pillers of the sports world nuts. They wanted to be beaten repeatedly with speed (such as Bethel Johnson's 41-yard touchdown reception to open the scoring). They can't seem to grasp losing to technicians and fundamentalists.

They don't want to be killed softly.

As they have done before, the Patriots secured this game with a late field goal from Vinatieri. Before the game, he determined that his longest attempt should come from the magical distance of 48 yards. He made a 46-yarder with a little more than four minutes remaining for the winning points.

"I don't think that ball had more than a couple of extra yards on it," Vinatieri said after the win.

Several yards away from Vinatieri in the winning locker room, Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison were explaining why the Patriots are able to snuff out teams without, at times, those teams and some fans walking away impressed.

"We never panic," Harrison, the All-Pro safety, said. "We don't panic in tight games."

McGinest, sounding as if he were reading from a media guide, talked about the experience on the team. He talked about Anthony Pleasant and his 14 years in the league. He mentioned himself, Ty Law, Ted Washington, and Larry Centers. All of them have been in the league for at least eight seasons.

They've been around. They know that small, seemingly undetectable things are the difference between winning a divisional playoff and walking away feeling like Zach Piller.

All of this subtlety was watched by 68,000 people whose skin must be made of 100 percent cotton. At least the players were either running or in the vicinity of space heaters. The fans didn't have that luxury. Some of them took advantage of the free handwarmers and coffee provided. Others sat and toughed it out. There were several people who had the gall to take their coats off and get by with a Patriots jersey pulled over long sleeves.

After the Big Chill was complete, Titans running back Eddie George walked toward the team bus slowly. He ran into Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who thanked him for "being a great representative for our league." George shook Kraft's hand and kept walking.

When Fisher emerged from the locker room, the veteran coach gave an indication that he understood what he had just witnessed. He grabbed Kraft's hand and looked him in the eye.

"Go win it," Fisher said softly. "Go win that trophy. I know you guys are capable of doing it."

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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