Patriots Must Stop Young Sensation

After clinching their fourth straight AFC East title last week in Jacksonville, the Patriots get ready to travel to Tennessee to take on the surging Titans. Depending on what happens with the Colts, the Patriots could rise as high as the third seed in the AFC. Meanwhile, Tennessee still has slim postseason hopes after winning six straight games.

"Obviously we're playing one of the hottest teams in the league," coach Bill Belichick said. "They've won six games in a row. Jeff (Fisher) and his staff have done a great job coming back from an 0-5 start."

After beginning the year 0-5, Tennessee decided to build for the future by turning the team over to rookie quarterback Vince Young. The former Texas standout and two-time Rose Bowl MVP took over a lifeless offense and turned the Titans into a playoff contender. He hasn't put up huge numbers but his leadership and ability to make big plays at crucial times in a game can't be measured by statistics.

This was first evident in a comeback win over the Giants when Young led the Titans to victory, despite trailing 21-0 in the fourth quarter. He struck again versus the Texans. The Houston native made his hometown team pay for passing on him in the draft. Young ended the game in overtime by scrambling 39 yards for a touchdown, much to the delight of the Houston faithful.

"He's doing the same thing he's always done," Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle said. "He did those things in high school, he did them in college and now he's doing them in the NFL. Anyone who's followed Vince Young over his career isn't surprised that he's having success right away in the NFL. He's always been a winner."

Young has provided a big spark for the Titans since he took over but he's not the only reason for the team's late season surge. The Titans are one of the youngest squads in the NFL, although running back Travis Henry has helped to provide some veteran leadership. Henry didn't make much of an impact in his first season with the Titans but has flourished in Year 2 with 1,109 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns. However, he'll be going up against a Patriots rush defense that's been strong all year.

One area Tennessee thought it really upgraded this offseason was receiver, thanks in large part to the signing of former Patriot David Givens. However, things didn't go well for Givens right from the start. He battled injuries and sporadic quarterback play early in the year, before being placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in his left knee.

Without Givens, the Titans don't have many options at receiver. Drew Bennett is the team's top target, followed by Bobby Wade and second-year man Brandon Jones. This isn't the kind of receiving corps that should give the Patriots problems. If the New England defense can keep Young in the pocket and make him throw the football, the Titans offense will be in trouble.

Keith Bulluck leads a young defense that should only get better with time, but could be in trouble this week against Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Cornerback Pacman Jones and safety Chris Hope head a Titans secondary that will try to shut down Brady and his receivers. That is, if New England isn't too busy running all over the NFL's 30th ranked rush defense. Laurence Maroney returned from a rib injury last week and had a big touchdown late in the fourth quarter. If he's 100m percent, Maroney should get 20-25 carries this week.

The Patriots don't have much to play for in this game. They will either be the third or fourth seed in the AFC or host a home playoff game next weekend. That means the team will probably hold out its injured players and pull the starters after a cameo appearance, much like they did in last year's season finale against Miami. Brady will probably play two or three quarters before giving way to Matt Cassel and the rest of the Patriots backups.

Although Belichick said the Patriots are playing to win this week.

"We're going to approach this game just like we do every other game," he said. "We're going to prepare for it and prepare to win, and go down there and try to play our best football game. It's that time of year. Hopefully we can continue to improve and keep playing well. That's really all we've got to talk about, is Tennessee. The rest of it, whatever else goes on next week (in preparing for the playoffs), we'll worry about that next week."

SERIES HISTORY: New England leads the all-time series with Tennessee 20-16, although most of the games between the two teams took place when the Titans franchise was still in Houston. Their last meeting was a tough, physical playoff battle played in bone-chilling temperatures at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots prevailed 17-14 when Titans receiver Drew Bennett dropped a fourth down pass inside the 20-yard line. New England dominated this series early on, winning eight of nine contests between 1963-1967. The teams have met four times since the Titans moved to Tennessee, with the Patriots winning three of the four. Since 1981, the Patriots have taken eight of 11 games from their old AFL rivals.

NOTES:

--The Houston Oilers dealt the Patriots their only home playoff loss in franchise history. Houston defeated New England 31-14 in an AFC Divisional game at Schaefer Stadium on Dec. 31, 1978.

--Tennessee's LP Field is the only current AFC stadium where the Patriots have played at least one game and never won. New England dropped its only game there, 24-7, on Dec. 16, 2002.

--Titans Head Coach Jeff Fisher was on the Chicago Bears injured reserve list in 1985. He assisted defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan as an "unofficial" coach when the Bears beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

--Troy Brown is the only current Patriot to have played against the now extinct Houston Oilers. In that game back in 1993, Brown recorded his second career reception on a 14-yard grab from quarterback Scott Secules.

--"That type of thing never enters my mind. I mean, it's the best part of the week for me, is Sunday. I'm not ready to give that up. All that crap that you do during practice is for that one day. So you don't want to give up those Sunday afternoons, because that is what it is worth for the player. That's why you work out all summer long, so you can play. To think of taking a day off or 'rest me' or any of that, I'm just not up for any of that." -- Tom Brady on not playing the whole game this week versus the Titans.

By The Numbers:

Plus-5 -- Both the Patriots and Titans are +5 in turnover differential this season. That's tied for ninth in the NFL.

They Said It:

"This was a t-shirt and hat game. Any time you have a chance to clinch the division, it's a t-shirt and hat game." -- Tedy Bruschi, talking about receiving his AFC East Champion shirt and hat after the Patriots wrapped up the division title in Jacksonville on Sunday.

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