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Patriots’ Vinatieri Warms to Task, 17-14

Times Staff Writer

Kicked footballs hurt toes, sent fissures of pain up legs, tumbled through the cold, dense air as if caught in a web, traveling end over end to nowhere.

There were the 27-yard punts, and field-goal attempts that couldn’t climb over the defenders’ frozen hands.

Except one.

With 4 minutes 6 seconds left in the AFC semifinal game between the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans, Adam Vinatieri ran onto the field, rubbing his hands and not feeling his feet.

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Vinatieri, the kicker-hero in a snowy New England playoff wonder against Oakland two years ago, thumped a 46-yard field goal that limped through the air, ducked inside the left upright and gave the Patriots a 17-14 win over the Titans on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium.

While Vinatieri, who had kicked an overtime game-winner in a blizzard against Oakland two years ago, was jumping up and down, certain he had made the kick easily, his teammates held their collective breath as the ball snuck over.

“I really didn’t think it would be close,” Vinatieri said. “When I hit it, I was jumping around and then I noticed no one else was.”

Titan receiver Drew Bennett, the former UCLA player, made two dramatic catches on Tennessee’s final drive -- two sideline grabs that were upheld after New England asked to have them reviewed -- but he couldn’t hold onto a desperate heave from quarterback Steve McNair on fourth and 12 from the Patriot 42. Bennett leaped and had his fingers on the ball for a moment, but Asante Samuel flew into Bennett, forcing him to drop the ball and hit the frozen ground with 1:45 left.

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As the Patriots were celebrating in the middle of the field, McNair found a dejected Bennett sitting with his head down. McNair placed his hands on Bennett’s shoulders and whispered to Bennett until the receiver finally raised his head.

It had been four degrees at game time with a wind chill of minus-11. Even so, some New England fans had come early to tailgate. Some were grilling burgers that couldn’t be eaten until the men and women pulled off caps and scarves that had covered their faces.

Players had prepared as if they were heading off to the Iditarod. Some slathered Vaseline over their bodies to keep in the heat. Some wore special gloves or extra layers of underwear. Fans were allowed a one-time exemption to bring in blankets and sleeping bags, security be darned.

When quarterbacks McNair and Tom Brady called plays their breath formed puffs of steam. Tennessee Coach Jeff Fisher had little icicles dangling from his beard by the end of the game.

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“It was a little nasty today,” said Vinatieri, who earlier had missed a 44-yard attempt from the same side of the field. “It was cold and it was hard kicking the football. But I went onto the field for the last kick determined to make it. We sure didn’t want to have overtime. Not tonight.”

The Patriots (15-2), who won their 13th straight game, never trailed.

Brady found wide receiver Bethel Johnson, a rookie from Texas A&M;, for a 41-yard touchdown on the Patriots’ first drive. “Getting out ahead was a big boost,” Brady said. “It gave us a rush of adrenaline and made it easier to forget about the cold.”

Tennessee (13-5) tied it on the next series on a four-yard run by Chris Brown. Bennett had caught a 24-yard pass from McNair during the drive and the Titans benefited when McNair, whose pass was almost intercepted, was thrown to the ground by New England’s Richard Seymour. Seymour was called for roughing the passer; Brown scored two plays later.

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At halftime, while the freezing fans watched a video of a fireplace with a crackling fire and heard Frank Sinatra sing “Summer Wind,” the Patriots were in the locker room talking about protecting a 14-7 lead. Brady had engineered an 11-play, 57-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run from Antowain Smith with 13:49 left in the second quarter.

The Titans would tie the score at 14 on a third-quarter drive that lasted 7:47 and covered 70 yards. McNair was sharp in hitting wide receiver Tyrone Calico for 30 yards and Derrick Mason for an 11-yard touchdown with 4:19 left in the quarter.

“I don’t believe I’m talking about this loss,” Fisher said, “because I really didn’t expect it. But the Patriots played well, very impressively.”

By the end of the game, McNair, who was 18 for 26 for 210 yards, was limping badly on an ankle that had been tender from the beginning.

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“I can’t ask any more of Steve, what he did down the stretch and his effort today,” Fisher said. “He almost put us in position to kick a field goal and tie the game.”

Bennett, who had started his NFL career as an undrafted free agent, took the blame for that final, dropped pass. “I dropped the ball,” he said. “I’ll have that image in my mind for a long time. Steve did all he could, as hurting as he was, and under a big rush, he put the ball right there for me.”

Now the Patriots will host the AFC championship against the winner of today’s Kansas City-Indianapolis game and have a chance for a second Super Bowl trip in three years.

“We’re playing well,” Brady said, “and we love playing here. Hope it snows next week.”

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