Titans vs. Patriots: New England Grades, Notes and Quotes
After a best-case scenario Week 14, the New England Patriots held control of their own destiny for home-field advantage throughout the postseason. On Sunday, the Pats took the first step toward clinching the top seed, pummeling the Tennessee Titans in a 33-16 win that never felt as close as the final score.
The Patriots offense opened the game with an efficient 79-yard drive. Tom Brady completed all seven of his passes and converted all three third downs on the drive, capping things off with a three-yard toss to Rob Gronkowski. Following a pair of punts, Chandler Jones beat left tackle Taylor Lewan around the edge to force a Marcus Mariota fumble, which Akiem Hicks returned for a touchdown to put New England up 14-0 after the extra point.
However, with all the momentum, special teams committed a disastrous mistake for the fourth straight week. Danny Amendola fumbled a punt, which set up Tennessee near the red zone, though the defense held the Titans to a 49-yard Ryan Succop field goal. Following a 75-yard Keshawn Martin kickoff return, Brady and Co. struck back immediately, as James White took a screen pass 30 yards to the house for a 21-3 lead. A Stephen Gostkowski field goal before halftime gave the Pats a commanding three-touchdown lead headed into the locker room.
The Titans trimmed the lead to 24-10 on their opening drive of the second half when Zach Mettenberger, in for an injured Mariota, hit Delanie Walker for a seven-yard score. The Pats suffered another breakdown when Walker broke away from five defenders for a 57-yard touchdown, which cut the lead down to 11 (following a missed extra point) with less than seven minutes remaining. However, a Jamie Collins pick and two Gostkowski field goals sealed the deal in the fourth.
Read on for complete analysis and postgame quotes from New England's triumphant regular-season home finale, which moved the Pats to 12-2.
Position Grades for Patriots
Running Back: A-
Wide Receiver: A-
Tight End: A-
Offensive Line: A-
Defensive Line: A
Special Teams: B-
For the second consecutive week, the Patriots attempted to protect Tom Brady from the bevy of hits he had taken from recent pass-heavy game plans. He finished 23-of-35 with 267 yards and two scores through the air, avoiding a turnover for the second straight week. Though his 7.6 yards per attempt was rather pedestrian by Brady's standards, he always seemed in control, particularly on third downs.
Even with Amendola departing early, the other receivers were able to create separation fairly consistently against Tennessee's anonymous secondary. Rob Gronkowski scored the game's first touchdown and ended up with five catches for 54 yards. Additionally, Brandon LaFell came up with a team-high 88 yards on four catches, his second-highest receiving total of the season.
Logan Ryan had some difficulties with the size of Titans rookie wideout Dorial Green-Beckham, who compiled 113 yards on six catches. However, Malcolm Butler shut down top target Harry Douglas, coming away with an interception and another pick, which was nullified by a holding call on the other side of the field.
Special teams were shaky again, with Amendola fumbling a punt that led to Tennessee's first points and Gostkowski missing just his second field-goal attempt of the season. Like last week, the third phase was probably a minus overall, but it did not hamper the Pats against an inferior opponent.
Backfield Trio Carries Offense
The "next man up" philosophy has its limits, but apparently the Patriots have yet to reach the tipping point at running back. With Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount both out for the season, the trio of James White, Brandon Bolden and Joey Iosefa stepped up to carry the offense Sunday.
With Josh McDaniels constructing a conservative offensive game plan built around ball control, the unheralded troika combined for 182 yards from scrimmage on 34 touches. White in particular has emerged as a reliable replacement for Lewis, displaying similar shiftiness in the open field while also improving his run-blocking. The second-year pro led the team in receptions for the second time in three weeks, compiling 77 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.
Most figured Bolden would receive the bulk of the early-down carries, but the rookie H-back Iosefa actually received the bulk of the touches. Promoted from the practice squad this week, Iosefa led all players with 51 rushing yards on 14 carries, while Bolden chipped in with 36 yards on 10 attempts. It's too strong to say the offense showed no signs of missing Blount or Lewis—the Patriots only rushed for 3.6 yards per carry—but the ground game was efficient enough when it mattered.
The Titans aren't much of a barometer to measure against, as they ranked 25th against the run by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric headed into the afternoon. Still, it was encouraging to see the Patriots successfully control the time-of-possession battle despite their decimated backfield personnel.
Defense Pressures, Knocks out Mariota
Facing AFC South offenses has been a nice remedy for a Patriots defense that came up short in critical situations during the team's two-game losing streak. A week after sacking the Texans six times and knocking the starting quarterback out of the game, the Pats again drove the starter out of the game and came up with five sacks.
No one should be glorifying a team when it injures other players. It should be noted that Jamie Collins' third-down sack of Marcus Mariota, which knocked the rookie out with a knee injury, was a legal hit that unfortunately resulted in Mariota's legs getting tangled up beneath him. The electrifying rookie is one of the few sources of hope for a moribund Titans team, and it was disappointing not to see him match up against the Patriots for a full 60 minutes.
Ultimately, though, Bill Belichick must be pleased with the pass rush's rejuvenation. With no Dominique Easley for the rest of the season, Belichick turned to a more liberal usage of the team's "NASCAR" package of Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich on the edges, with Chandler Jones and Akiem Hicks inside. Hicks in particular has continued to surge, coming up with his third sack in three weeks and scoring on Jones' forced fumble in the second quarter.
Tennessee's inexperience at the quarterback situation certainly helps, as there were multiple times when Mariota or Mettenberger simply held the ball far too long for the offensive line to hold up. Nonetheless, with Jones getting back in the sack category and Hicks turning into a reliable interior cog, the Pats have an area of their team they can lean on as injuries erode away at other parts of the roster.
Injuries to Three Starters Cloud Win
The day was not without its casualties, as Danny Amendola and Dont'a Hightower appeared to reaggravate old injuries. Amendola left the game in the second quarter following a punt return, and Hightower limped off during the third, with neither returning once he went back to the locker room. Additionally, Patrick Chung was hurt on Delanie Walker's fourth-quarter touchdown, appearing to take a helmet to the ribs.
None of the three has a clear prognosis after the game, so for now, we can only read between the lines. Chung attempted to jog off but eventually pulled up and walked away to the locker room with what was diagnosed as a hip injury, per MassLive.com. The Boston Herald's Jeff Howe reported there was early optimism from the team on Chung.
Additionally, Hightower at least returned to the sideline, which would seem like a positive sign despite his not returning to action.
Amendola seems like the likeliest of the three to miss time. Howe reported that the staff was looking at the same left knee he had sprained earlier, which would suggest he again tweaked the knee. One would hope it is a similarly mild sprain as the one he suffered against the Buffalo Bills, but even that would likely sideline him against the New York Jets next week.
Even with most of the cavalry expected to return for the postseason, the Patriots aren't going to get much of a look at their full-strength roster (or at least a close approximation of it) during the regular season. This game only reaffirmed that New England should take the cautious route the next two weeks and push its chips all in for the postseason.
Tom Brady: James White Gaining Trust
With no Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis or Danny Amendola for most of this contest, Tom Brady turned to second-year back James White as the primary target on horizontal route concepts. White has proved dependable in his first extended NFL action, a fact that Brady relayed to WEEI's Ryan Hannable after the game:
Brady on James White: "He's gained a lot of trust from everybody."— Ryan Hannable (@RyanHannable) December 20, 2015
White has now scored in each of the past three games, compiling 236 yards from scrimmage in that span. Most of that has been through the air, as the running back screen has returned as a staple of the offensive playbook following a stretch when it largely disappeared for a brief stretch after Lewis' injury.
Even when Edelman and Amendola presumably return for the postseason, White will remain crucial to stretching the underneath zone defenders. Even though he failed to win the passing back job out of training camp, White has shown he can successfully fill a role that has always been integral to the Patriots passing game.
Bill Belichick: Stork Not Playing a Coach's Decision
One intriguing development from the postgame report came regarding the status of starting center Bryan Stork. After missing practice Friday, Stork was scratched for this game, which was noted as a coach's decision by Bill Belichick, per Hannable:
Belichick on Stork not playing: "Coaches decision."— Ryan Hannable (@RyanHannable) December 20, 2015
Before the game, ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported that Stork was seen leaving Gillette Stadium roughly three hours before kickoff. Stork was absent Friday for non-injury reasons, but apparently his personal issues were significant enough to cause him to miss the game. Belichick's response was also rather opaque, leaving open the possibility that the Pats had simply benched Stork.
In any case, David Andrews resumed the pivot role after starting the first 10 games of the season. Andrews had seemingly fallen out of favor, but if Stork is out of the lineup for multiple games, the Pats at least have some level of familiarity and assurance with the rookie.