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MICHAEL HOLLEY

No time like present

Wait is over as Patriots set to tackle Titans

This is what the Patriots wanted all along. It was the absence of this in January 2003 that made many of them miserable and restless, as if someone had forced them to hibernate before their time.

They didn't want to be wearing alpaca sweaters and sipping hot chocolate in a Green Mountain ski lodge. They didn't want to be dipping chips in salsa and throwing rubber bones to Hereboy in their family rooms. Nothing personal, but they didn't want to be in position to hear the commentary of Greg Gumbel, Phil Simms, and Armen Keteyian on CBS.

All of the offseason angst was for moments such as tonight's at Gillette Stadium. The Tennessee Titans are in New England to play the Patriots in an AFC divisional playoff game. But those are just the details.

The time (8:15 p.m.) doesn't matter and neither does the opponent.

The Patriots think it's a privilege to play in weather that can freeze your sentences and make your cotton longjohns feel like silky pieces of thread. They'll take it early or late, on network TV or local access, here or there -- as long as it's the playoffs. Everything they have done and even considered doing in the past year has been crafted with tonight in mind.

It's not an exaggeration to say Bill Belichick was in pain at this time last year. His team was 9-7, the defense was a joke, and the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl XXXVI couldn't even be defended.

If you mentioned the secondary to Belichick last January, he scowled. He was willing to do anything to play in prime time again, and he was looking for people who were just as hungry as he was.

Before Al Harris became a playoff hero in Green Bay, the Patriots called the Eagles and tried to pry the cornerback away by dangling a third-round pick (the Packers were willing to give Philadelphia a second-rounder). They went after Tyrone Poole, too, and he responded with a season that was worthy of the Pro Bowl.

Rodney Harrison was also signed for nights such as these. In Harrison, Belichick and Scott Pioli saw a safety without pretense. Even when Harrison had nothing to prove, he always played like he did. Belichick and Pioli liked that because they felt they had to prove themselves as well.

Harrison was angry that the Chargers released him -- although now it appears Marty Schottenheimer's awful Chargers did him a favor. The Patriots were angry to be pushed to the NFL margin, a non-playoff team no matter how many ways you rationalized that they lost the AFC East on the third tiebreaker.

Tonight is not about 14-2 and a 12-game winning streak. It's not about Tom Brady proving that he is every bit the quarterback and MVP as Steve McNair. It's not about Patriots fans being able to say "I told you so" to some doubting commentator on the tube or some cynical fan in a chat room.

It's about having the opportunity to handle business. It's about remembering how empty it feels when you're standing outside the playoff walls. It's about eliminating the tiebreakers and the small print from various playoff scenarios.

If the statistics don't convince you that the Patriots will win tonight's game, then cite their motivation for hosting the AFC Championship game a week from tomorrow. Dozens of players, scouts, and coaches have been waiting a year for a game like this.

It has been one year since Belichick challenged himself and his assistants to become better coaches. Belichick was named coach of the year last week, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis have become head coaches-in-residence, and Eric Mangini has guided a secondary with All-Pros Harrison and Ty Law, and rookie starter Eugene Wilson.

And they're still not satisfied.

Strength coach Mike Woicik still sees Brady attack drills as if it's 2000 and Michael Bishop is ahead of him on the depth chart. Roman Phifer still remembers the endless afternoons of 2002. There was that one in San Diego when LaDainian Tomlinson ran and ran, and no one could do anything about it.

"The worst thing about a team running on you at will," Phifer said, "is that it feels like they're punking you. It's unacceptable. It's one of the worst feelings a defensive player can have."

Regardless of position and title, they're all defensive players in Foxborough. The Patriots have first-class credentials but they prefer to travel coach. In the middle seat. With the aisle and window passengers claiming the armrests.

Pioli still remembers sitting in his den, watching the Browns and Steelers play a wild-card game in Pittsburgh. At one point he snapped, "Dammit. I can't believe we're not in the playoffs." Christian Fauria remembers telling his wife that he wouldn't be available for a few days because it appeared the Patriots were going to the playoffs. They weren't. He moped for a while after that.

You can dismiss the overconfident angle right now. You can throw out the line from Las Vegas, too. The Patriots could win by 6 points. But they'll take 5, 3, or 1.

"I'm telling you man, they're going to Houston," said Belichick's friend, rocker Jon Bon Jovi. "Bill doesn't want to hear that, but they're going to Houston."

Before they get to the Super Bowl in Houston, they have to win this game. They won't win it because they're destined to do it. They'll win because they're the better team. They'll win because they understand the dynamics of their profession. And in their profession, this is the worst time of year to be at home.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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