FOXBORO, MASS. — FOXBORO, Mass. - The same script the New England Patriots have used for victory much of the past three seasons came into play again last night.
New England, a largely unheralded and somewhat overlooked team whose wins are credited more to structure, schemes and grit than overwhelming talent, outlasted the Tennessee Titans, 17-14, in a hard-fought game at bitterly cold Gillette Stadium.
Adam Vinatieri had a foot in the outcome again. The kicker who carried New England on its drive to the Super Bowl title two years ago booted a 46-yard field goal with 4:06 left to send the Patriots (15-2) into the AFC championship game next Sunday against the winner of today's Indianapolis Colts-Kansas City Chiefs game.
New England will play host to the conference title game for the second time in three years. The Titans, who beat the Ravens, 20-17, last week to advance, finished 13-5.
"I thought it would be the toughest game of the year, and it was," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Tennessee is a very good football team."
Though the Patriots and Belichick are not exactly considered the league's biggest risk-takers, they took their biggest, and what could have been costliest, chance of the season on a fourth-and-three from their 33-yard line.
With the score tied at 14 and just over five minutes left in the game, Belichick put the season in the hands of his cool-under-pressure quarterback Tom Brady, who stood firm in the pocket and effortlessly completed a 4-yard out pattern to Troy Brown for the first down.
That play helped set up Vinatieri's winning field goal, which barely knuckled through the uprights but re-affirmed his reputation as one of the league's best clutch kickers.
"We felt like we had a good chance to get points on the board," Belichick said. "We put one of our best players out there."
"It ended up being a little closer than I thought," Vinatieri said of the field goal. "It came down to the wire. It really didn't have a whole lot of room."
New England held off a late rally by the Titans, one that was hurt severely by a sketchy intentional grounding penalty on quarterback Steve McNair on one play, followed by a holding penalty on Benji Olson on the next.
Those plays set up a Titans' fourth-and-12 attempt from the Tennessee' 43. Quarterback Steve McNair's desperate pass attempt against an oncoming blitz fell incomplete to Drew Bennett at the 16-yard line.
"That was a tough way to end it," said Bennett, who got both hands on the pass but failed to bring it in. "I should have made that play, but I didn't."
"All our games are pretty physical and tough," said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. "This one had more at stake. If you lose, you go home. If you win, you keep going."
While the first half gave the impression that the game could turn into a shootout, both defenses settled down in the second.
After the Titans scored a touchdown on their first possession of the second half to tie the score at 14, New England's defense stiffened and held Tennessee to 2 yards over the next two possessions, generally by blitzing.
"We realized that we let them go up and down the field, and enough was enough," Harrison said. "We had to challenge the guys. We stepped up and said if they beat us, they beat us, but we are going to challenge them."
Tennessee 7 0 7 0 - 14
New England 7 7 0 3 - 17
First quarter NE-B.Johnson 41 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick), 10:59. Ten-C.Brown 5 run (Anderson kick), 7:31. Second quarter NE-A.Smith 1 run (Vinatieri kick), 13:46. Third quarter Ten-Mason 11 pass from McNair (Anderson kick), 4:14. Fourth quarter NE-FG Vinatieri 46, 4:06. A-68,436.
First downs 16 18
Total Net Yards 284 297
Rushes-yards 26-84 27-96
Passing 200 201
Punt Returns 0-0 1-9
Kickoff Returns 4-92 3-48
Interceptions Ret. 0-0 1-7
Comp-Att-Int 18-26-1 21-41-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 3-10 0-0
Punts 4-34.0 4-27.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 9-55 2-14
Time of Possession 31:58 28:02
Rushing-Tennessee, George 16-48, C.Brown 7-35, McNair 2-11, Wycheck 1-(minus 10). New England, A.Smith 16-69, Faulk 5-22, Brady 5-5, Centers 1-0. Passing-Tennessee, McNair 18-26-1-210. New England, Brady 21-41-0-201. Receiving-Tennessee, Mason 7-90, Bennett 3-48, McCareins 2-21, Wycheck 2-9, George 2-7, Calico 1-30, Kinney 1-5. New England, Givens 4-26, Fauria 3-42, Faulk 3-31, Branch 3-10, B.Johnson 2-55, T.Brown 2-11, Ward 1-22, Centers 1-4, A.Smith 1-1, Graham 1-(minus 1). Missed field goal-New England, Vinatieri 44 (WL). Tennessee, Anderson 31 (BK).