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ON FOOTBALL

They gained the edge by not going over it

NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Titans like to play on the edge. Yesterday they nearly pushed the Patriots over it.

New England had been warned about a penchant that too many of the young Titans have for pushing, shoving, trash talking, late hitting, and generally being irritating to their opponents in every way. But it is one thing to hear about such things and quite another to get drilled in the back or hit while innocently standing 10 yards away from a nearly dead play. Have such things happen to you on a rainy, sloppy, fairly meaningless final Sunday afternoon of the regular season and, well, you might get a little testy about it, which for a time the Patriots were.

But teams do not get to the playoffs by giving in to such emotions, because teams that do that lose more often than they win. They beat themselves while trying to beat up their opponents, a concept it took a while for the Patriots to remember yesterday. But eventually they did, and they retaliated thereafter with something more effective -- brutally crushing play in a 14-point fourth quarter that blew open a tight game.

Provocation is no excuse for the season-high 129 penalty yards the Patriots were assessed in yesterday's 40-23 win over Tennessee at LP Field, but it is an explanation. Players are human beings, even though sometimes they're not treated that way. They make mistakes. They have emotions. They get hot when one of their own is injured by a borderline block at the knees, as safety Rodney Harrison was yesterday when young wide receiver Bobby Wade cut him down and sent him limping to the sideline for the rest of the day and maybe far longer.

That borderline block was too much for linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who went after Wade and several of his teammates even though no flag was thrown and referee Ed Hochuli later said the block was legal. It may have been legal, but it was close enough to the edge to put Bruschi on edge, so much so he charged the Titans' bench before several teammates and an official calmed him down.

"At one point in the game guys got unraveled at some of the things they were doing, things that were out of character that we didn't think they would do," defensive lineman Ty Warren said when asked about Bruschi's overheated reaction and a personal foul called on his usually mild-mannered teammate, Richard Seymour, at a critical juncture.

"I'm not really going to go into all of that, but it was obvious when you see it on film," said Warren. "At certain times we got caught up into that, but cooler heads prevailed and we got back to playing ball the way that we needed to be playing ball."

The Patriots' ability to catch themselves after they had begun to slip into the abyss of playing the Titans' game, which is to say a chippy brand of football, is a large part of the reason they finished what has been a difficult season at 12-4 and in the playoffs despite more than a few difficulties, while the Titans were eliminated in part because they lack the mental toughness the Patriots have made their hallmark.

This was an ugly game marred by 19 penalties that cost the teams 248 yards. There were enough dropped passes and missed tackles to make a how-not-to-do-it training film. Much of that was the consequence of players losing themselves in their emotions. In football, anger begets mistakes, and mistakes beget frustration, and frustration begets penalties (and in the worst of moments injuries, as well), and penalties beget problems.

For a surprisingly long stretch, the Titans got what they wanted out of their graceless style of play, though. They got the Patriots to play their game.

"It's a challenge in a game like that to keep your composure," special teams ace Larry Izzo said. "We need to play smarter. There were times we didn't play our brand of football. At times, you fall into someone else's brand of ball. That's not Patriot football. But in the long run we got back to doing the things we expect to do."

According to many of the Patriots, and even a few of the Titans, Tennessee played its brand of football, too.

"We were just playing tough football," said Wade, the wide receiver who cut down Harrison. "Rodney is a strong individual. I've got to block him in that slot position, but he takes full advantage of being able to hit me in the face.

"We got up in a hurry-up situation and we have a run called '16 Stretch' where the tailback is stretching the play and I've got to come in and handle the force. Rodney was the force. I squared him up, looked him dead in the eye, and hit him in his thighs. It was a legal block. I talked to the referee about it and he said it was legal.

"It's unfortunate it happened that way, but it was a highly emotional game. A lot was on the line. We were fighting for our lives to have an opportunity to play in the playoffs. They were fighting to try to get a place. It was a tough game. We just wished we could've played a little better."

Maybe if they played more and played on the edge less they might have, but they didn't, and that was the difference. The Patriots, once they turned down the flame of their emotions, played better because they were the better -- and more controlled -- team. The Titans had flashes of individual brilliance from quarterback Vince Young and returner Pacman Jones as well as a provocative air, but the Patriots had team brilliance (171 yards rushing, 134 receiving yards from Reche Caldwell, a fourth-quarter shutout from the defense) as well as the brilliance to understand that the street fight needed to stop if the football game was to be won.

"It was a tough-played, emotional game," said Seymour. "We just got a little testy . . . something that we didn't want to get into. It's part of football, but you just have to stay smart.

"We don't want to play games that way. We want to play tough, play physical, play smart, and get some wins. You don't want to get into all that pushing and shoving, cheap-shot stuff. We did for a while, but then you want to show the other team what you're about. You want to come out and play tough and play the game the way it's supposed to be played, with a lot of respect.

"You definitely don't want to get into the little pushing and shoving stuff that some of those guys over there normally get into. You want to do it between the whistles [rather than after them]. We realized what was going on and got back to football. It's not about pushing and shoving. It's about winning the game. In the end, we showed the other team what we're about."

Ron Borges can be reached at borges@globe.com.

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