Patriots blast Titans, shaking up top of AFC playoff picture

Mark Daniels
The Providence Journal

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Some people say that real football starts after Thanksgiving. For the Patriots, you couldn't have asked for a better start to this holiday season.

The Patriots' 2-4 start feels like a distant memory. On Sunday, against the AFC’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans, the Pats put together one of their best performances of the season. Despite being down multiple top offensive weapons, the Titans were in striking distance to start the second half.  That’s when the Patriots leaned on their elite defense, special team studs and talented rookie quarterback en route to a 36-13 blowout win.

The Patriots improve to 8-4 and have won six straight with an important matchup with the Buffalo Bills on deck.

This performance wasn’t perfect, but the Patriots leaned on their offense, defense and special teams on Sunday afternoon. Here’s how it all went down:

Patriots safety Kyle Dugger celebrates after recovering a fumble during the second quarter Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

The defense was turnover-happy

The Patriots' defense was going up against an offense without their best player (running back Derrick Henry) and top two receivers (A.J. Brown and Julio Jones). Tennessee was still able to challenge the Patriots – for a moment, anyway.

At one point, this game was close, but the Patriots defense, which allowed a season-high 269 rushing yards, changed everything with five turnovers.

Following a Ryan Tannehill touchdown pass, the Titans were driving and within field goal range. However, at 1:57 of the second quarter, Davon Godchaux forced a fumble on Dontrell Hilliard. Safety Kyle Dugger recovered the ball.

The next drive saw Hilliard run for a 68-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the half. The Pats went into halftime up, 16-13. Over the last three games, the Patriots defense allowed 40, 99 and 78 rushing yards. They gave 143 rushing yards in the first half on Sunday.

The Patriots defense continued to struggle against the run when the second half started, but they also made plays. At 10:34 of the third quarter, D’Onta Foreman broke out for a 34-yard gain. However, J.C. Jackson punched the ball out and Jalen Mills recovered the ball.

In the fourth quarter, it happened again. The Pats couldn’t stop the run and the Titans were at the 2-yard line. On fourth-and-2, Devin McCourty deflected Tannehill’s pass and Jackson came away with the interception at 12:06 of the fourth.

With 6:05 remaining, Ja’Whaun Bentley strip sacked Tannehill and recovered the ball. The Pats turned that into a Damien Harris touchdown. With 38 seconds left, Kyle Van Noy forced a fumble on Khari Blasingame with Jahlani Tavai recovering.

Titans running back D'onta Foreman crashes through the Patriots' defense during the first quarter on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

Mac Jones’ arm carried the offense

This might've been the coldest game Mac Jones ever played in. It also turned out to be one of his best.

The Patriots offense struggled in spurts on Sunday. The unit didn't run the ball well and weren't entirely efficient in the red zone. However, the rookie quarterback dazzled the Titans defense with multiple highlight deep balls. Jones finished 22/31 for a career-high 310 yards and two touchdowns.

The rookie’s first touchdown, at 7:37 of the first quarter, was a beauty into the corner of the end zone with Kendrick Bourne making a nice contested catch. Bourne was another star of the day. At 5:01 of the third quarter, the receiver took a short pass over the middle, scampered to the opposite side line, received a great block from Jakobi Meyers and made multiple defenders miss en route to a 41-yard touchdown reception. That put the Pats up, 26-13.

Although touchdowns were hard to come by for the offense, Jones led the Pats to multiple scoring drives. The rookie was on fire to start the second drive completing his first four throws for gains of 22, 20, 16 and 13 yards to set up a field goal. At 5:01 of the second quarter, Jones threw a 38-yard pass to Meyers, who made a phenomenal highlight-reel catch. That set up another field goal.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones is tackled just short of a first down during the third quarter Sunday in Foxboro.

Nick Folk’s leg also carried the Patriots

The Patriots offense had no problems pushing the ball, but they struggled in the red zone. Those struggles led to Nick Folk having an efficient day. The veteran has been one of the best kickers in the NFL this season and that was seen on Sunday.

After starting this game with a touchdown, the Patriots offense went to Folk over and over again on Sunday. The 37-year-old hit five field goals on Sunday, scoring 18 points.

The Patriots special teams unit stood up this afternoon. Gunner Olszewski’s first punt return went for a gain of 15. That set up the Pats 37 yards away from the end zone and led to the team’s first touchdown. The offense was stranded at the 8-yard line on their next drive, but Folk finished that off with a 22-yard boot. The next series saw the kicker hit one from 37 yards out.

Following Dugger’s fumble recovery, Folk hit a game-long 44 yarder. He missed a 53-yard field goal before the half, but opened up the third quarter with a 28-yard field goal at 11:13. That kick was set up by a 37-yard punt return from Olszewski.

In the fourth quarter, Folk hit a 52-yard field goal. That tied the Patriots franchise record (Stephon Gostkowski) with his fifth 50-yard field goal of the season.

Unlike New England, Tennessee ran into some special teams issues with kicker Randy Bullock missing an extra point and then a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter.

Patriots kicker Nick Folk, right, celebrates a field goal during the second quarter Sunday in Foxboro.