The last thing the New England Patriots need now is a matchup against one of the NFL’s most physical teams.
New England, which could be without 10 opening-day starters, will try to make do with a patchwork lineup for the second straight week when the Tennessee Titans visit Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots failed in a bid to win their third straight game Sunday, falling 20-17 to the Washington Redskins. Though it played without three starting linebackers and was forced to give two offensive linemen their first NFL starts, New England had a chance to tie the game in the final minutes.
After two second-half touchdown passes by Tom Brady, the Patriots chose not to give Adam Vinatieri a shot at kicking a potential, game-tying 55-yard field goal. Instead New England went for it on fourth-and-3 and Brady’s pass fell incomplete.
“What more can you ask for than what we had?” Brady said. “We came back, we did a good job getting ourselves back in the game. You get the ball on the 45 and you can’t get a first down. That’s a pretty bad feeling.”
Brady completed 25-of-38 for 289 yards and two TDs, but was intercepted three times—twice with New England well within Vinatieri’s range.
Included in New England’s lengthy injury list are linebackers Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest and Roosevelt Colvin, nose tackle Ted Washington, offensive linemen Damien Woody, Adrian Klemm and Mike Compton, receivers David Patten and David Givens, fullback Fred McCrary, running back Kevin Faulk, tight end Daniel Graham and cornerback Ty Law.
“There’s not too many times you’re going to come out there 100 percent,” Law said. “But it’s just, how much can you take? How much can you tolerate?”
New England coach Bill Belichick knows facing the Titans could leave his club with an even longer injury list.
“They have some big, physical players. They have a very aggressive attitude,” Belichick said. “Defensively they have a very good defensive line. They are big and they bring it. They blitz the linebackers a lot. They are a tough team, they are a physical team, and they are a very good team.”
Titans safety Lance Schulters takes pride in his team’s style.
“The way we practice so physical ends up showing on the field. We’re physical, we run to the ball, and we hit,” he said.
One obstacle facing Tennessee will be its inability to win the following week after beating archrival Pittsburgh. The Titans have lost the week after their last three wins against the Steelers.
“We’ve put two wins in a row together which is important, but the last three times we’ve beat Pittsburgh, we’ve come back and lost the following game,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve got a challenge now, and we need to continue to improve each week.”
Steve McNair, the NFL’s top-rated passer, was 15-of-16 for 161 yards and three TDs, and the Titans received several big plays from their defense in a 30-13 victory at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
In Tennessee’s 27-9 home win over New England on Dec. 16, McNair completed just 11-of-24 passes for 136 yards, but ran for two TDs as the Titans controlled the ball for over 41 minutes. The Patriots were held to a season-low 176 yards of total offense in that game.
McNair hasn’t been running downfield much this season, scrambling only eight times for 31 yards for a team-leading average of 3.9-yards per carry. He credits his offensive line for giving him great protection and allowing him to buy more time for receivers to get open.
“When things break down, yes I will run. But I haven’t had the opportunity,” McNair said.
While injuries on the defensive side will make it difficult for New England to contain McNair, the Patriots have just as many concerns on the offensive end, particularly if Faulk is unable to play.
Faulk ran 10 times for 12 yards against Washington before leaving in the third quarter with an injured leg. Antowain Smith, relegated to a backup role this season, ran 14 times for 56 yards and may need to carry an even greater load this Sunday.
Brady must also be better if the Patriots are to move back above .500. He has thrown seven interceptions in two losses this season and none in two wins.
Tight end Frank Wycheck, who is still suffering the effects from a concussion, will not play Sunday after a second medical opinion advised against it.
“We got some mixed results, some good and some that would suggest there’s a concern,” Fisher said. “They recommended that we shut him down for five to seven days before we pick up any activity, so that’s going to be our approach.”