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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Pats advance to AFC title game

Vinatieri's late field goal, New England defense freeze out Titans, 17-14

FOXBOROUGH  --It was a night when every player on both teams had ice water in his veins. The Patriots hadn't been this cold since the original patriots, coached by George Washington, bunked at Valley Forge in the wicked winter of 1777-78.

But it doesn't matter if the game is played in Frostbite Falls or a climate-controlled dome in Houston (site of the Super Bowl), the result is the same: The Patriots always win.

Last night, the Patriots made it a lucky 13 in a row with a bone-chilling 17-14 playoff win over the Tennessee Titans on the frozen tundra of Gillette Stadium. In a time-tested formula, mildly reminiscent of the Snow Bowl playoff win over Oakland two years ago, Adam Vinatieri's 46-yard field goal with 4:06 remaining broke a late tie. Forget about icing the Patriots' kicker. Vinatieri always makes the big ones.

"I think it was everything we expected in the game," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "It was a whale of a football game ... We had a lot of guys step up in a lot of different areas. I was proud of the way our guys hung in there and made some clutch plays at the end." Gillette will be the site of the AFC Championship game next Sunday when the Patriots play the the winner of today's joust between the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs for the right to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons.

It's unlikely next week's weather will match the big chill that visited Route 1 last night. It was 4 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill of minus-10 at kickoff. It was the coldest game in the 44-year history of the Patriots.

"It was probably the coldest game I ever played in," said quarterback Tom Brady, who wore a glove on his left hand only. "But it wasn't too windy. We're living in it, so I think we get used to it."

Patriot Nation was not deterred. Fans -- remember, the word is an abbreviation for "fanatics," toted blankets and sleeping bags into the stadium. It looked like a winter Woodstock festival with NFL garb instead of tie-dyed T-shirts. Without doing much research, it seemed safe to figure that the outdoor McDonald's behind the south end zone wasn't moving many McFlurries. The stouthearted fans couldn't make much noise with their hands. The sound of 136,000 mittens clapping is actually quite muffled.

"They were great," said Brady (21 of 41, 201 yards). "Even the club section was out in full force, which you don't see too much."

The Patriots never trailed, but got a scare when Tennessee tied the score late in the third quarter. It wasn't really over until Titans wideout Drew Bennett dropped a prayer pass from Steve McNair on a fourth-down play with 1:45 left.

The Patriots struck early. On New England's sixth play from scrimmage, Brady connected with rookie roadrunner Bethel Johnson on a 41-yard, post-pattern touchdown. Who says Brady doesn't throw the deep ball? The quick strike warmed the hearts of the hearty fandom and teased some into thinking the Patriots might be in for a blowout.

The Titans answered immediately, moving 61 yards in six plays and scoring on a 5-yard touchdown run by Chris Brown. It was something of a shock to see the visiting team in the end zone at Gillette. Excluding a garbage-time score by Jacksonville Dec. 14, no opponent had scored a TD at Gillette since the Titans scored several way back on Oct. 5.

The Patriots regained the lead early in the second quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Antowain Smith. Tennessee had a final chance to get on the board in the first half, but Gary Anderson's 31-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Patriots All-Pro lineman Richard Seymour. It was then that a clever Patriot operative chose to put Frank Sinatra's classic, "Summer Wind," on the public address system.

The Patriots led, 14-7, at intermission, but the Titans threw a scare into the frozen masses with an 11-play, 70-yard, touchdown drive midway through the third quarter. McNair's 11-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason tied the game with 4:14 left in the third.

The New England defense dug in and the Patriots won the game of field position midway through the fourth quarter. After pinning the Titans deep in their territory, the Patriots took over at the Tennessee 40 with 6:40 left to play.

Enter Brady (no interceptions in nine home games this season). He moved the Patriots into field goal position. A key play came on fourth and 3 from the 33. Coach Bill Belichick boldly went for the first down and Brady connected with Troy Brown ("In the big situations I always find Troy and he always catches it" -- Brady) to keep the drive alive. The clock was winding down as the Patriots moved toward Vinatieri's comfort zone.

Kicking a 46-yard field goal on a night like this is not easy, but Patriots fans have come to expect nothing less from their clutch kicker.

"Those kinds of situations, that's what he's here for," said Belichick. "He's come through many times. It just barely cleared. It was right at the edge of his range and he hit it."

The coach didn't make a single comment about the weather. Just football.

"We put everything we had into this game," he said. "Now we're just going to have to suck it up and go back again next week."

Thirteen straight. Bring on the Colts or Chiefs. More cold, even. Then bring on the Panthers, Eagles, or Packers. Doesn't matter.

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