QB thrives under playoff pressure
In freezing temperatures, Tom Brady was the hottest player on the field.
FOXBORO, Mass. -- There was no snow this time, no Lonnie Paxton swishing snow angels in the end zone, no -- thank the Lord for small favors -- revisit of the Tuck Rule.
It was the coldest game in 43 seasons of New England Patriots football -- a frigid 4 degrees, with a wind-chill factor of -10. At halftime, they showed a blazing fire on the big screen at Gillette Stadium and played "Baby, It's Cold Outside." By the time the game was decided, and Jeff Fisher's moustache had become completely iced over, it was hovering around zero.
Still, no one was cooler than Tom Brady.
With glacial calm, he guided the Patriots to a 17-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Saturday night's AFC divisional playoff game. In a game that featured a dozen plays that could well have altered the outcome, a simple 4-yard pass from Brady to wide receiver Troy Brown was probably the biggest.
With the score tied at 14, the Patriots faced a fourth-and-3 at the Titans' 33-yard line with 5:14 left in the game. New England spread out the Titans and Brady stepped back and fired a laser to Brown, who pinched off an out-route and launched himself past the yard marker before getting shoved out of bounds by safety Lance Schulters. Four plays later, Adam Vinatieri was called on to kick the winning 46-yard field goal with 4:06 left.
"When I got to the line of scrimmage, I looked back at Tom to see if he saw [the defense] I saw," Brown said. "He saw it."
Was it the game's biggest play?
"Yeah," Brady said later. "That was a big play to Troy. In the biggest situations, I find Troy."
That isn't quite right. The big situations, it seems, seem to find Brady. He's 26 years old and already he's starting to post some ridiculous numbers:
The MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI is a game away from a chance to win his second Vince Lombardi Trophy in three seasons.
And, yet, despite all of this numeric excellence, the stat sheet would suggest that Brady was outplayed by his Tennessee counterpart Steve McNair.
The NFL's co-MVP, along with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, was his usual heroic self, playing on a bad ankle for starters. He completed 18 of 26 passes for 210 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. The Titans actually had a chance to force the game into overtime, but McNair's desperation heave to Drew Bennett bounced off the wide receiver's hands on fourth-and-12 from the Patriots' 42-yard-line with 1:38 left on the clock.
"A numbing feeling comes over you when you have our expectation level and it comes to a screeching halt," Fisher said. "We had a chance to make the play at the end, and we didn't. We were hoping for an all-out blitz and a go-route. We got what we wanted, but we didn't get it done."
The Patriots, of course, have raised "getting it done" to an art.
The running game is barely serviceable; led by Antowain Smith, the Patriots ran the ball 27 times for 96 yards. They control games with their defense and special teams, and they throw a lot of short passes. Brady, the third choice in MVP balloting, completed passes to 10 different receivers Saturday night.
On the Patriots' first drive, Brady found Kevin Faulk across the middle for a 19-yard gain on third-and-5. Three plays later, on third-and-6, he went over the top to Bethel Johnson, who got behind Titans safeties Schulters and Lamont Thompson for a 41-yard touchdown.
The Patriots led 7-0 with only 4 minutes and 1 second gone in the game.
Brady's contributions to the second touchdown drive were less obvious but equally important. With the score tied 7-all, the Patriots found themselves looking at a daunting third-and-13. Brady hit Johnson on a short slant from left to right, but Johnson looped and headed back toward the left sideline. Just as Schulters was about to close in on Johnson for a loss, Brady threw a shoulder into his hip and leveled him. Freed, Johnson sprinted down the sideline and picked up 14 yards, one more than he needed.
On third-and-3 at the Titans' 6, Brady took a naked bootleg exactly three yards, diving just past the first down marker.
"Slower than cold syrup" was how Brady quoted defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's analysis.
Two runs later, Smith crossed from the 1-yard-line and it was 14-7, which turned out to be the halftime score.
The Titans tied the score in the third quarter on a 11-yard pass from McNair to Derrick Mason, before Brady made that modest fourth-quarter play that won the game, catching Brown along the sideline.
The Patriots' defense, it must be said, was its typical savage self. Believe it or not, the Titans scored more points against New England at home than anyone since, well, since they threw up 30 points in a 38-30 loss here on Oct. 5. New England now has allowed 36 points in its last six home games.
It was, as always, a team effort. Defensive end Richard Seymour blocked Gary Anderson's 31-yard field goal late in first half. Safety Rodney Harrison had an interception, five tackles and several near-sacks of McNair. Linebacker Willie McGinest, in on seven tackles, was credited with two sacks. Linebacker Teddy Bruschi was in on nine tackles.
And when it was all over the Titans, perhaps the league's most mentally tough team, looked tired and undeniably old. Still, more than a little denial ran through the visiting locker room.
"I think that that team is not a very good team," said Titans guard Zach Piller. "It sickens me that we lost to them. I will not leave this stadium thinking we got beat by a better team."
This is what those underwhelming Patriots do to you.
Rather than critique the Patriots, though, Fisher chose to praise his own team.
"The team in that [visiting] locker room is pretty special," he said in a heartfelt soliloquy, "one of my favorites in the last six to eight years. Their commitment, their effort, you couldn't ask much more from them."
You can be sure New England coach Bill Belichick will ask for more from his 15-2 team. They'll play the winner of Sunday's Kansas City-Indianapolis game here at Gillette Stadium next Sunday.
"We expected this to be the toughest game of the year and I think it was," Belichick said. "On our side, we had a lot of guys step up in a lot of different ways."
Put Brady at the top of the list.
"We don't produce as much as I'd like us to," Brady said, "but at the critical times we do a good job of converting. We've been on this roll so long, it feels like just another game. I was just in the shower, thinking, 'God, we've come a long way.'"
Greg Garber is a senior staff writer for ESPN.com