By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
NOTE: This is the first installment in a series dedicated to the "forgotten" playoff games from the Patriots' 20-year run as kings of the NFL.
The Game: 2003 Divisional Round vs. Tennessee Titans
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
It was cold. So cold. Unbelievably, unbearably cold.
Even for born-and-bred New Englanders, this night was a special level of cold. It was the type of cold where if you spent more than 30 seconds outdoors, your knees began to stiffen, your nose hairs froze, and your body went into panic mode until you found someplace warm.
That was, except for the 68,000 fans who spent the night watching the Patriots host the Titans and NFL co-MVP Steve McNair in the first ever playoff game at Gillette Stadium.
Those fans were rewarded with an absolute thriller of a football game.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2003. Everybody knows that. But the path to that Super Bowl was anything but easy.
First up was a visit from the Tennessee Titans, who went 12-4 and beat the Ravens in Baltimore on wild-card weekend, thanks to a last-minute field goal by Gary Anderson.
Led by Steve McNair, Eddie George and Derrick Mason, the Titans had the fifth-best scoring offense in the NFL in 2003.
The Patriots, meanwhile, had just completed a 14-2 regular season, which was their greatest regular season in franchise history. (They've matched that mark three times since then, and they beat it in 2007.) In perfect Patriots fashion, nobody on that 14-2 team had particularly great numbers, while the defense allowed the fewest points in the NFL.
The playoff game was a rematch of a Week 5 meeting in Foxboro between the two teams, a game which the Patriots won 38-30, sealed by a 65-yard pick-six by Ty Law.
It was a big night in Foxboro. This guy was there:
And just to reiterate: It was cold. It was 4 degrees at kickoff, with wind chills making it feel like minus-10.
It was so cold.
The game got off to a perfect start for the Patriots. The crazy home crowd might have contributed to a false start before Tennessee's first snap, and the Patriots' defense forced a three-and-out.
Tom Brady and Co. then marched 69 yards on just six plays, thanks to a 41-yard connection with Bethel Johnson for the game's first touchdown.
On the Titans' next possession, though, a Richard Seymour roughing the passer penalty helped set up a Titans touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
Later in the first quarter, Adam Vinatieri missed a 44-yard field goal, but McNair threw a pick to Rodney Harrison (in smothering man coverage against tight end Shad Meier) on the very next snap. The Patriots capitalized with an 11-play, 57-yard touchdown drive capped off by an Antowain Smith plunge from the 1-yard line.
The highlight of that drive? It was authored by Bethel Johnson, who pulled off an utterly ridiculous reversal of the field (and picked up a key block from Brady) to gain 14 yards on a third-and-13.
Bethel Johnson, ladies and gentlemen. No doubt a star wide receiver in the making. (Those were his only two receptions of the night. He'd end up catching precisely two more playoff passes for the rest of his career.)
The Titans tried to cut into that 14-7 lead late in the first half, but Richard Seymour blocked a field goal, because Richard Seymour was a monster.
The Titans did tie the game late in the third quarter on an 11-yard catch-and-run by Mason. Daniel Graham fumbled on the ensuing Patriots possession, and the game was quite tense when it entered the fourth quarter with a 14-14 score.
Do you realize how close the Titans came to winning this game, thus throwing a stick in the spokes of a Patriots locomotive that was in the process of becoming the only team in the 21st century to win back-to-back Super Bowls? Do you?
It was pretty close. Closer than it should have been, really.
First, the Patriots had to get a lead, which they did in part thanks to a typically clutch connection between Brady and Troy Brown. With a 51-yard field goal seeming like a bad idea on this ice-cold night, the Patriots went for it on a fourth-and-3 from the Titans' 33-yard line. They got four yards, because that's what Brady and Brown did.
The drive pretty much stalled there, though, with Brady throwing incomplete on second and third down. (Daniel Graham dropped both, the second of which should have been hauled in.) The Patriots had to kick a lengthy field goal anyway, but Vinatieri toed a 46-yarder just inside the left upright to give the home team a three-point lead with just over four minutes remaining.
"That's Adam Vinatieri. He does it over and over again," Brady said about that kick in the cold. "He never surprises us."
The best defense in the NFL, coached by Bill Belichick, merely had to come up with one more stop, and it would be on to the conference championship.
The man who threw a wrench in those plans? That was ... Drew Bennett, of course.
The third-year wideout made a toe-tapping catch along the left sideline that seemed impossible -- so much so that Belichick threw a challenge flag. That challenge was to no avail, as Bennett had made one of the dandiest catches you could ever see:
On the next play, McNair evaded a rush and scrambled for an 11-yard gain, accentuating the run by barreling over Asante Samuel.
Now we get to "The Patriots Easily Could Have Lost This Game, Part 1": The Titans would have had a fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 32-yard line, setting up either a 50-yard field goal to tie it up or a chance to gain a yard and keep the drive moving. But a holding penalty on lineman Benji Olson turned the fourth-and-1 into a third-and-23.
So McNair went to Bennett once more, and he once again made a toe-tapping catch on the sidelines, this time for a gain of 11 to set up a fourth-and-12.
Where did McNair go? Why, to Drew Bennett, of course.
And it worked. It absolutely worked. It was a mess of a play. There was no protection. The jump ball was a prayer. It was wildly underthrown. Yet, somehow, it worked.
But Bennett dropped the ball.
Tyrone Poole fell down, paving the way for "The Patriots Easily Could Have Lost This Game, Part 2." Had Bennett simply caught the football, it would've given Tennessee a fresh set of downs at the Patriots' 15-yard line, with plenty of time on the clock. A game-tying field goal would have been more or less a sure thing (even if Gary Anderson was 44 years old), but the Titans (who still had a timeout left plus more than 90 seconds on the clock) would have had at least three shots at the end zone.
Alas, they did not get that chance, because Bennett dropped the ball. (Of course, the rumbling freight train that was on its way in the form of Eugene Wilson, plus the arrival of Samuel, it all contributed to the drop. The defense gets some credit. But it was still a drop. A brutal drop.)
After that, the Patriots drained the clock, with Brady throwing the ball to the moon on a fourth down to officially bring up zeroes on the game clock.
"It was one of the more intense games I've played in," Rodney Harrison reflected after the win.
It was an incredible game. It had elements. It had superstars. It had big plays. It came down to the very end.
When we look back now at Dynasty 1.0, we hold the 2003 and 2004 teams as the pinnacle of what the Patriots have ever been. And with good reason.
Yet in doing so, we tend to gloss over just how close the '03 squad came to falling face-first before even getting the chance to play for that second Super Bowl. In the end, that team had just enough defensive talent and a little bit of luck on its side, leading to this 17-14 victory, upon which a dynasty was built.
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