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Patriots, Titans enter the Monday night spotlight

(Sports Network) - Two of the AFC's best teams will square off to conclude Week 15 in the NFL, as the Tennessee Titans host the New England Patriots on Monday night.

The Patriots, who have won three straight games, are coming off a solid 27-17 home victory over Drew Bledsoe's Buffalo Bills. New England jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the first half and cruised to the season sweep of AFC East rival Buffalo. The Pats started the season 3-0 before a four-game skid turned their season upside down. However, Bill Belichick's team has won five of six games since the slide to go three games over .500.

"When you're 3-4, you just hope that you could be 4-4, you're not thinking about 6-5, 8-5, or anything else," said Belichick. "I think that's the only way you can ever get to 8-5, or whatever. Once you're 3-4 and you start thinking about 10-6, you're probably going to be 3-5...you've got to take a short-term approach and you can only play one game at a time. You better put all you've got into that one game, or you'll be mourning that loss and trying to talk about being 4-4 instead of 3-5.

"So right now, whether we're 8-5, or if we were 5-8, I think it's the same approach -- we've got Tennessee this week and we've got to put everything we've got into the Tennessee game. This is a big game, it's an important game, and it's a tough game. It's a Monday night game on the road, and Tennessee is one of the best football teams in the league."

The Titansí 1-4 start seems like light years ago. After topping the Philadelphia Eagles by three points in the 2002 season opener, Jeff Fisherís club fell prey to a demoralizing four-game losing streak. However, the Titans have won seven of eight games since their drought. Tennessee's latest conquest was an impressive 27-17 triumph over AFC South rival Indianapolis. While the Titans and Colts own identical 8-5 records, Tennessee has the inside track to the division crown by virtue of their two wins over Indy.

"[The victory over Indianapolis] means a lot. We always preach that we have to start fast, and in the past couple years we havenít started fast," said Titans quarterback Steve McNair. "We havenít given up though, we learned to take it one game at a time and just build on our record. We knew that we had some games later in the season that we could win, and we stepped up and won them. Now weíre right back in the playoff race."

SERIES HISTORY: New England owns an 18-14-1 edge in the all-time series with the Tennessee/Houston franchise, including victories in six of the past eight meetings. These teams have never met in Tennessee in a regular-season game. The last meeting between the clubs came back on September 20, 1998 at Foxboro Stadium when the Titans were still the Oilers. In that contest, Bledsoe threw a 51-yard TD pass to Terry Glenn to lift the Pats to a 27-16 victory over the Oilers.

Belichick owns a 4-6 career mark against the Tennessee/Houston franchise, while Fisher lost his only meeting with New England. However, Fisher is the NFL's winningest coach since 1999 (41-20, .672).

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT: The Patriots are 9-18 all-time on Monday nights, while the Titans/Oilers have won 15 of 28 MNF games, including 10 of their past 13 at home.

PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS. TITANS DEFENSE

Belichick and New England's veterans are well-aware of the time of year. December in the NFL is crunch time, and few teams have been better in the year's final month than the Patriots. New England, which has won five straight December games, owns a 7-2 mark in the month under Belichick. The team compiled a perfect December last year en route to the franchise's first Super Bowl title.

"I don't know if we can rely on what we did during last year's Super Bowl run to help us this year," said Belichick. "That was a long time ago and we have a whole new challenge this year. Tennessee is a good example. It's a team we haven't faced and we don't really have any background with them. They are a really tough team to get ready for. I think the main thing this time of year that to me is important is the veteran experience -- guys that have been playing at this time of year and know what is at stake and know how the games get played later on in the season. I think that is really helpful, but I don't know if a game a year ago or two years ago means much.

"It's really the veteran leadership at this time of year that's important, it's important to every team. No matter what your record is, who you're playing, or anything else, I think it's important to any team. We have, I think, a lot of good veteran leadership on this team, so that's good. In terms of the carry over from last year, I don't know about any of that. I think if we go out and lose the last three games you're going to sit there and say there isn't too much carry over. I think that'll all be reflected upon when it's over, rather than where we are now. Whatever leadership, whatever character, whatever toughness, whatever commitment, whatever it is we have, we better put all of it into the Tennessee game."

The Patriots' stern head coach is all business heading into the Monday night showdown with Tennessee, and certainly won't let his team rest on its laurels after beating Buffalo handily last week. However, it's difficult to ignore the team's recent success.

QB Tom Brady outdueled his mentor, Bledsoe, for the second time this season last week. The Super Bowl XXXVI MVP completed 15-of-27 passes for 183 yards and two touchdowns against the Bills in Week 14. Most importantly, the Pats' offense didn't turn the ball over.

"Everythingís on the line, so we have to play our best from here on out," said Brady, who is the AFCís second-rated passer in the fourth quarter of games (102.4 rating with nine TD passes and one interception). "In just one game you can go from being at the top to the bottom real quick."

One of the biggest keys to the Pats' offense is spreading the ball around to several different receivers. Last week, 10 different Patriots had a reception versus Buffalo. Expect that trend to continue against the Titans, but WR Deion Branch might not be able to play because of a leg injury.

Wideouts Troy Brown, David Patten and Donald Hayes, who caught his second touchdown pass as a Patriot last week, will have to provide Brady with consistent targets downfield against Tennessee's 19th-ranked defense.

"Itís a little more challenging to prepare for a team like Tennessee because we donít know these guys like we know Buffalo or Miami or New York [Jets]," said Brown, who needs one more reception to be the first player in franchise history with three consecutive 80-catch seasons. "So itís definitely more of a challenge for us to get to know these guys better. All we hear about are the guys, the big-name guys that we hear about all the time when you see them on the highlights. They definitely have some players on the team who can play, so we definitely have to find out what they are all about and get to know them better and the only way you can do it is by watching film. You have to double up on that stuff a little more than you usually do."

The Titans are expected to get a big defensive boost in the form of DE Jevon Kearse, who is expected to be back in the lineup on Monday night. Kearse, who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three NFL seasons, hasn't played a down since breaking a bone in his left foot on the second play of the season.

"I hope I can get out there and show the world what they have been missing all season," said Kearse. "It is the time to show everybody what you are made of. There isnít any bigger stage to see me return on the field on Monday Night Football other than a playoff game.

"Injuries happen and I understand that they are part of the game. It hurts watching from the sidelines because you feel like there are certain things going on during the game that if you could have made that play or be the difference maker if you were out there. You get to the point where you ask yourself a lot of questions when you are out for such a long period of time. Itís a good time for the next person in line to step up and show what they have to contribute in my absence."

Even if Kearse returns, the Titans will have their hands full trying to slow down the NFL's seventh-best scoring team. New England averages 25.4 points per game.

Tennessee's biggest weakness has been its pass defense, which ranks 26th in the NFL. Brady doesn't compile huge passing stats with big plays. New England's offense is happy to hit for the eight- and 10-yard passes, so the Titans must exhibit patience on the defensive side of the ball.

It could be tough for the Patriots to run the ball consistently on Monday night. New England's ground attack ranks 28th in the NFL. RB Antowain Smith gained 68 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts versus Buffalo, but he's only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once this season. The Titans have the sixth-best run defense in the NFL (97.3 yards per game).

Last week, the Titans' defense intercepted Peyton Manning three times.

"Beating the Colts was a big win on account of it was the Colts and they were in first place," said Titans cornerback Samari Rolle. "I wouldnít call it being in the driverís seat because we can easily be right where we were at the first part of the season. We just have to keep fighting. These last three games will tell us all about what weíre made of. To be a champion, weíve got to play like one and weíll have the chance next Monday night against the defending Super Bowl Champs. Weíve got to lace them back up Monday night and move on."

TITANS OFFENSE VS. PATRIOTS DEFENSE

Despite playing with a nagging rib injury and a crippling case of turf toe, McNair willed his Titans to a clutch fourth-quarter comeback against the New York Giants in Week 13. Tennessee rallied to tie the game with 15 points in the fourth quarter to force overtime. McNair then worked some magic in the extra session to set up Joe Nedneyís game-winning field goal.

The Titans didnít need McNairís late-game heroics last week, however, as they dismantled the high-flying Colts, who entered the game with a four-game winning streak, with a series of big plays and a dose of smashmouth football. McNair, who enjoyed a stretch that featured 14 consecutive completions, completed 19-of-23 passes for 237 yards and a touchdown -- a 42-yard strike to RB John Simon that set the tone for the game in the first quarter.

"I've said this before...I don't think I've ever been around a tougher guy week-in, week-out, day-in, day-out," said Fisher of McNair.

"I catch myself watching him during a play. I just turn around and shake my head sometimes, thatís how amazing he is," Titans veteran offensive lineman Gennaro DiNapoli said of McNair. "Heís great. Everybody talks about [Oaklandís Rich] Gannon and [Kansas Cityís] Priest Holmes being MVP, but boy heís got to be in the running."

The Colts entered last week's showdown with the second-ranked defense in the NFL. But Tennesseeís McNair-led offense converted 8-of-12 third downs en route to 348 total yards -- 58 more than Indyís weekly average.

"[The Titans] played outstanding football; especially Steve McNair," admitted Colts head coach Tony Dungy. "He made all the big plays in the clutch. He was outstanding on third downs. He moved around, got away from the rush and basically made the points they needed to win the game.

"[McNair] is an outstanding thrower with great mobility and great desire to make plays when it counts. He wants the ball in his hands and they put the ball in his hands. To do what he did today and last week without the benefit of practice is really unbelievable. I have a lot of respect for him."

While McNair completed a whopping 82.6 percent of his passing attempts versus Indianapolis, he also managed to scramble for 49 yards on five carries despite a myriad of injuries.

"I played most of this season feeling good until about halfway through, when my toe started bothering me and my ribs started acting up," admitted McNair. "But up until the halfway point I was feeling good. Itís typical though for injuries to start piling up as the season goes on. I canít even begin to explain performance level when Iím injured. It goes back to high school when my coach told me that when youíre in pain, you tend to stay more focused on what you have to do. I took that to heart, and I think thatís how I play now, I can just concentrate better when Iím playing in pain."

The Titans arenít exactly a one-horse team. While McNair provides the offensive excitement, RB Eddie George keeps plugging his way through opposing defenses.

George isnít the same player he was a few years ago. Injuries and nearly 2,400 NFL carries have taken their toll on the 29-year-old Ohio State product. Yet much like McNair, George seems to find a way to keep scratching and clawing for every yard -- as if the team is still trying to make up for the one yard that separated Kevin Dyson and tying St. Louis on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV.

Back in the Week 9 contest in Indy, George rushed for 95 yards on 22 attempts. While he didnít average more than four yards per carry against the Colts this time around, George found the end zone twice on short runs.

"[Indianapolis] played with a great deal of passion," George said. "They do a good job at what they do and we were up for the challenge. We faced some defenses this year that were tough and we were battle tested. We didnít pay attention to the rankings. We just more or less focused on what we had to do as a unit to get the job done.

"This is just another step forward. I think it builds confidence. Weíre building and continue to build. I think two weeks ago was a great week for us to come back the way we did when we were in New York and this is a carry over effect and thatís what we want to do. By no means is this an emotional victory or do we think weíre on top of the world. We know thereís a lot of hard work left to go. Weíve been in this position before in the past, two years ago, and we just want to finish off strong and be a better team three or four weeks from now and just build from this on a steady incline."

New England's crafty veteran defense poses another huge challenge for McNair, George and WR Derrick Mason, who leads the Titans with 67 receptions for 870 yards and four touchdowns.

The Pats haven't allowed more than 17 points in their last three games -- all victories. While Bledsoe passed for 328 yards last week, the Patriots intercepted him four times in the contest. However, stopping a mobile quarterback like McNair will be a tougher task.

"I think McNair is playing as well as any quarterback we've seen all year," admitted Belichick. "He is very athletic with his feet, he has shown he can bring the team from behind, and he's done that. What he did against the Giants was as good as a quarterback could do, march them up and down the field, audible to the quarterback draw, and win the game, all that. It was impressive. He is a tough guy to disrupt and I think it really starts with the coaching staff. I think they do a great job of formation, of using different personnel packages, of moving guys around, and it is hard to get a real good read on what they're doing and when you finally figure it out itís hard to stop."

12/12 20:30:38 ET


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