Sat, 22 Jan 2022

Game Observations: A Clash with the Titans

New England Patriots
29 Nov 2021, 19:34 GMT+10

Erik Scalavino

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - The Patriots have a lot for which to be grateful this Thanksgiving Weekend. Not least of which, the opportunity they continue to make for themselves to climb up the American Football Conference's overall standings - perhaps even as high as the No. 1 seed, depending on the outcome of the Sunday night matchup between Baltimore and Cleveland.

After starting the season 2-4, New England has somehow clawed its way up to at least the 2-seed by finding ways to win six consecutive games.

If you only look at the final score of this latest victory, you wouldn't understand just how close it actually was throughout most of the four quarters. Somehow, you just knew that Titans head coach Mike Vrabel (the former Patriots playmaker at linebacker) would make things difficult for his old club. Despite a depleted roster that's been beset by injuries to key players on both sides of the ball, his Titans remind me a bit of the old Baltimore Ravens that were never afraid to come to Foxborough during the Tom Brady era and play tough, even beat the Patriots, as Vrabel's Titans have done before in this stadium.

So, what swayed the score in New England's favor. Ultimately, you can credit a handful of big plays. Let's get into more details.

* * *

Facing his first cold-weather test as a Patriot - snow flurries actually swirled through the air for much of the afternoon - rookie QB Mac Jones fared much the same as he has thus far in 2021: single-digit incompletions, no interceptions, and relying considerably on his screen game. He also registered just his second 300-yard passing game of the season. Afterward, he credited his being able to practice outdoors here in Foxborough with helping him get acclimatized to the elements.

Jones' best play came early, on New England's opening possession, when he floated a fantastic jump-ball to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who hauled in the TD with an even better catch.

That great play got balanced out by a badly overthrown toss Jones later made to a wide-open Hunter Henry. The tight end was racing unimpeded for the end zone on a 3rd-down, but Jones, who had plenty of time in the pocket to find Henry, sailed the ball over his teammate's head.

The good-natured Jones also laughed off his most glaring gaffe as a "rookie error." During a late-game scramble, he came up short of the 1st-down marker, but popped up thinking he had, and indicated as such. It was nice to see Jones in a humanizing, self-deprecating moment as he explained it to reporters after the game.

Mac Jones on the day Mac Jones vs. TEN Mac Jones in 2021

Edge rusher Matthew Judon continues to vie for the league lead in sacks. Entering the game tied for fourth, he registered number 11.5 on the season, and it came at an opportune time - the third play of the day from scrimmage, forcing the Titans into a three-and-out punt. Judon later incurred a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty midway through the second quarter, but his value to this defense continues to manifest itself each week.

* * *

First quarter, Patriots played predominantly their 3-4 base defense, an indication of just how thin the Titans were at wide receiver and focused on the run. But as the Patriots got the lead, the Titans began substituting more, and the Patriots had to respond in kind.

Despite missing all-world runner Derrick Henry, Tennessee dominated on the ground, with two players surpassing 100 yards rushing. In the first half alone, the Titans piled up 142 yards. Even if you discount the Dontrell Hilliard 68-yard TD with under a minute to play in the first half, the Titans had 74 yards rushing at that point.

Compare that to a paltry 23 yards for the Patriots by intermission, nine of which came on an end-around to tight end Jonnu Smith. New England's inability to get much going on the ground was especially surprising, given that Tennessee didn't have three of its best run defenders available because of various injuries.

* * *

Good day for the aforementioned Smith, who's been relatively quiet this season. Sunday, though, he caught three of four passes Jones threw his way, including a 20-yard effort.

* * *

Rookie Christian Barmore was active, but didn't see the field much. He's been dealing with a knee injury this week that limited his practice time. In Barmore's stead, 2021 free agent signing Davon Godchaux got more reps at defensive tackle, and he took advantage, forcing a Tennessee fumble - one of the few big plays he's made this season. It wound up leading to three points for New England.

* * *

Best game of the season for Jalen Mills. The 2021 free agent cornerback made a couple of critical pass breakups and a recovered a fumble that thwarted a potential Titans go-ahead scoring drive. Mills has been victimized by opposing QBs at times this season, but played an important role in today's win.

* * *

On Bourne's second touchdown - a wonderful catch-and-run effort in the late 3rd quarter - fellow wideout Jakobi Meyers did a masterful job of throwing a block without incurring a penalty. The way Meyers had favorable position up field, he could have gone with his instincts and blind-sided the oncoming Titan.

However, Meyers simply stood in the path of defender and threw his hands in the air, to indicate to the officials that he wasn't actively trying to throw a block, which could have been interpreted as an illegal one. Bourne wound up tip-toeing down the sideline for a score, thanks to Meyers' heads-up play.

Meyers also had a solid receiving day, grabbing several Jones passes and coming up just two yards short of the century mark.

* * *

Placekicker Nick Folk may have pushed a 53-yarder wide right at the end of the first half, but he also drilled a 52-yarder in the late 4th quarter that helped seal the victory. It also marked Folk's fifth field goal this season of 50 yards or longer, tying him for the franchise record with Stephen Gostkowski.

* * *

Powerful Play/Player of the Game presented by Enel

Cornerback J.C. Jackson, who was directly involved in two of the game's biggest plays.

Early third quarter, following a Patriots field goal to put New England up 19-13, Jackson stripped running back D'Onta Foreman of the ball and fellow cornerback Jalen Mills recovered. Foreman looked like he was headed for a touchdown run almost identical to the one Hilliard had earlier.

Then in the 4th quarter, Jackson was the beneficiary of a deflected pass in the end zone by safety Devin McCourty. Jackson interception for a touchback came on a Tennessee 4th-down attempt as the Titans tried to close the deficit to one score. With seven picks this season, Jackson is just one INT behind the league leader, Dallas' Trevon Diggs.

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