The hero of the snowy "Tuck Rule" game and the 2002 Super Bowl kicked a 46-yard field goal with 4:06 left on a bitterly cold Saturday night to give New England a 17-14 victory over the Tennessee Titans and put the Patriots within one win of the Super Bowl.
"It was a big kick," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We get in those kind of situations -- that's what he's here for. And he's certainly come through many times for us."
New England fought off temperatures that dipped to 2 degrees -- with a wind chill of 11 below -- to win its 13th consecutive game and improve to 9-0 at home this season. The Patriots will be back in frigid Foxboro next week to play for the AFC championship against the winner of Sunday's game between Kansas City and Indianapolis.
It was 14-14 at halftime and it was still that way when Tom Brady hit Troy Brown with a 4-yard completion on fourth-and-3 from the Tennessee 33. Vinatieri, who missed a 44-yarder in the same direction in the first quarter, came on four plays later and sneaked the ball over the crossbar.
"I honestly thought it wouldn't be that close," Vinatieri said. "When I hit it, I was jumping up and down ... but I was the only one jumping up and down. Everyone else was still holding their breath."
Steve McNair led the Titans to the New England 33 before an intentional grounding and a holding call put them out of range for the potential game-tying field goal. A desperation fourth-and-12 tossup bounced out of Drew Bennett's hands, and the Patriots ran out the clock to deprive Tennessee of a second consecutive appearance in the conference title game.
"I didn't anticipate this. Nor could those guys inside," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "But a numbing feeling comes over you when you have a huge expectation as we have, and it comes to a screeching halt."
That numbing feeling might also have come from playing in the coldest game in the Titans' tenure in Tennessee or Houston, and the coldest in Patriots history, too. But it didn't quite match the NFL record of minus-13 -- with a wind chill of 48 below -- for the 1967 Ice Bowl, when Dallas visited Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
Barbecue grills typically used for tailgating in the parking lots were pressed into duty as space heaters, and free coffee was poured for those who dared to make a party of it. The team gave out hand-warmers to the first 10,000 people entering the gates, and lifted the ban on blankets and sleeping bags.
Those who stayed in their seats for halftime were serenaded with Frank Sinatra's Summer Wind and teased by video of a roaring fire on the scoreboard. The Minutemen who fire their muskets to celebrate Patriots' scores were dressed for Valley Forge.
On the sidelines, the players huddled under parkas, blew on their hands to keep warm and fought for space on the heated benches. Steam puffed from the mouths of the quarterbacks as they barked out the plays, and from their teammates as they huffed each bone-chilling breath; at the end, Fisher's mustache was frosted over.
There were a few dropped passes early -- one late, by Patriots tight end Daniel Graham might have set up a go-ahead touchdown -- and some bad throws that might have been due to the loss of touch.
"You throw a parka on. You get as many kicks in as you can on the side," Vinatieri said. "Then you sit on the seat and try to stay warm."
Then you go out and kick a rock-hard ball 46 yards through the dense, cold air so that, just maybe, your teammates will swarm around you and keep you from freezing.
"That's Adam Vinatieri. He does it over and over again," Brady said. "He never surprises us."
A South Dakota native who's no stranger to the cold -- or pressure -- Vinatieri became a local legend when he kicked a 46-yarder through a blizzard in the "Tuck Rule" game against Oakland to send the game in overtime, then won it with a 23-yarder. He kicked the game-winner in the '02 Super Bowl, a 48-yarder with no time left.
Although it lacked the snow that blanketed the field for the victory over the Raiders, the last playoff game to be held in Foxboro, this one was nearly as dramatic.
Brady was confused enough by what the Titans were showing him early on that he called a timeout less than four minutes into the game. It was well-spent: On the next play, he found Bethel Johnson running down the middle and hit him with a 41-yard touchdown to give New England a 7-0 lead.
Roman Phifer almost intercepted McNair's pass at the 18, but Richard Seymour was called for roughing the passer after he threw McNair into the ground. Two plays later, Chris Brown scored on a 5-yard run to tie it at 7 after one quarter.
Vinatieri missed from 44 yards, but Rodney Harrison intercepted McNair on the next play, and New England was moving again.
Facing a third-and-13, Brady hit Johnson on a flare pass and then threw a block as the receiver cut back across the backfield looking for an opening; that sprung him for a 14-yard gain. On a third-and-2 from the Tennessee 6, Brady rolled right for a 3-yard gain. Two plays later, Antowain Smith ran it in from the 1 to make it 14-7.
Tennessee tied it in the third when McNair hit Derrick Mason near the 10 on third-and-10 from the 11. He broke Asante Samuel's tackle and then jumped for the goal line, breaking the plane as a hit sent him spinning out of bounds.
McNair was 5-for-5 for 59 yards on the drive and 18-for-26 for 210 yards overall. Brady was 10-for-16 for 152 yards in the first quarter but struggled after that, finishing 21-for-41 for 201 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
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