Patriots

4 big takeaways from the Patriots’ dominant takedown of the Titans

The Patriots showed they could play with postseason-style physicality in crushing the Tennessee Titans for their sixth straight win.

After he sacked Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (not pictured) Patriots LB Matthew Judon (center, 9) celebrates with teammate Adrian Phillips. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

The Patriots’ ascent to the top of the AFC is looking more inevitable than the Marvel villian Thanos right now.

After dispatching the Tennessee Titans 36-13 in a physical game worthy of January football, New England retained its AFC East division lead and moved to second in the conference. A Baltimore Ravens loss on Sunday night would make them the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

The NFL’s best defense in terms of points allowed stifled their opponent once again, holding Tennessee to just 13 points and notching four more takeaways—the sixth game in which they’ve forced multiple turnovers in their last seven.

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Then, a career-high yardage game for Mac Jones, Nick Folk’s leg, some key late runs, and Kendrick Bourne’s pure will to win gave the offense all it needed to turn this one into a rout.

These are the takeaways from Sunday’s big win:

Patriots’ defense bends, then breaks the Titans.

Even without the great Derrick Henry, the Titans still managed to make a few big plays against New England, highlighted by Dontrell Hilliard’s improbable 68-yard touchdown run at the end of the first half at make the score a surprising 16-13.

Then, the Patriots’ defense did what it’s been doing to every team they’ve faced during this win streak: they threw down the gauntlet and took the football away.

J.C. Jackson chased D’Onta Foreman down from behind during a 30-yard run and punched the ball out on Tennessee’s first drive of the second half. Jalen Mills recovered it.

Two drives later, with the Titans two yards from a much-needed score, Devin McCourty tipped an end-zone throw into Jackson’s waiting arms for the cornerback’s seventh interception of the year.

That’s now two weeks in a row of at least four takeaways for New England’s defense, which also held Ryan Tannehill to just 85 yards passing.

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It’s simply hard to think of any team playing better defensive football than the Patriots at this moment. That level of play makes them as dangerous as any team in the league heading into the cold months of the year.

Mac Jones takes charge and (mostly) thrives.

The Titans’ focus on stopping the Patriots’ running game forced the ball into Jones’s hands a lot in this one.

The overall numbers (23-for-32, 310 yards, 2 TDs) say Jones had one of his best games as a pro, generally continuing his trend of making the right decisions and getting the ball out of his hands quickly. He also had a couple “wow” throws, including one that showcased how ahead of the curve he is for a first-year passer.

Faced with a blitz and little margin for error on third-and-goal during New England’s first drive, Jones lofted a perfectly timed touch pass on a corner route to Bourne, giving his receiver a chance to high-point the catch and get both feet inbounds. It went down as a four-yard touchdown in the books, but the play was far more impressive than that to the eye.

But the young quarterback also had a few plays he’d like back. In particular, he missed too far to Hunter Henry on a wide-open corner route that should have gone for a red-zone score. The read and timing on the throw were all good; he just overthrew the ball.

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Later, Jones threw a short pass that could have been picked off and potentially taken all the way back for a touchdown that would’ve changed the game. Fortunately, the errant ball was dropped.

A win is a win, and the rookie certainly didn’t play poorly. But games like this remind you of how much growth he has ahead of him from an execution standpoint.

Tennessee won’t be the only team to dare Jones to beat them through the air. Sunday gave a glimpse of how tough the Patriots will be to beat once he truly settles in.

Kendrick Bourne embraces his identity.

Who had Bourne being the more impactful free-agent receiver joining the Patriots this offseason between him and Nelson Agholor?

Going a step further, Bourne has been the best pass-catcher on the team aside from Henry and his seven touchdown grabs.

What Bourne lacks in the blazing speed and explosiveness people thought the Patriots needed at wide receiver, he makes up in outstanding body control and raw playmaking ability.

He showed those qualities off on both of his touchdowns, mossing elite defensive back Kevin Byard on his first score and breaking multiple tackles while tight-roping the sideline to stay inbounds and score on his second.

Those who worried Bourne was simply a duplicate of Jakobi Meyers (who helped spring Bourne on that second touchdown with a key block) are now seeing just how unique and productive the fifth-year receiver is in New England’s offense.

By the time this year is over, Bourne will likely set career-highs in every category. Who knows? He might even lead the team in receiving.

Nick Folk: the Patriots’ secret weapon.

Let’s assume Justin Tucker is firmly ensconced as the best placekicker in all of football.

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Is anyone other than Tucker better than Folk at the moment?

The 37-year-old is doing his job at a higher level than he arguably ever has since joining the Patriots last season. He ranks third in field goal percentage (91.9) among regular kickers behind only Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell (95.5) and Los Angeles’ Matt Gay (94.7).

More than that, Folk has made four or more field goals in a game five times this season, including against the Titans. Put a different way, Sunday’s win against Tennessee marks the fifth time Folk has scored at least 12 points on his own for the Patriots — in this particular game, he outscored the Titans 18-13 by himself.

With the offense still finding its way under Jones, Folk’s ability to put points on the board for the offense almost every time he takes the field is one of the most perfect paradigms of Patriots complementary football you can point to. When points are at an even higher premium in the playoffs, New England may be even more thankful to have Folk than they are during this Thanksgiving weekend.

Quick hits

  • Jalen Mills hasn’t exactly stood out in an overwhelmingly positive way this season, but Sunday goes down as one of Mills’s best in a Patriots uniform. He had two passes defended, including a clutch third-down knockdown, and was Johnny-on-the-spot when Jackson forced the fumble on Foreman, diving on the ball just before it tumbled out of bounds.
  • Matthew Judon is now one sack away from tying Chandler Jones for the most sacks in a single season for a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots player (12.5). He also added another quarterback hit and had an impressive chase-down of the athletic Tannehill on a broken play that might’ve gone for a first down if not for Judon’s pursuit. What else is there to say? There hasn’t been a better free-agent signing in football this season than the man wearing the red sleeves.
  • Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson didn’t have much going on the ground through three quarters of action against a Titans team that typically allows fewer than 100 yards rushing per game. But even Tennessee’s stout front couldn’t keep them down for long. Stevenson busted out for two runs of 10 yards or more on a fourth-quarter drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock and added to the Patriots’ lead. Then, Harris salted the game away with a hard-nosed touchdown run after New England turned the Titans over deep in Tennessee territory. As long as the Patriots’ running game can play like this to close out games, this team won’t give up many leads down the stretch.
  • Next time you make the “first-down” sign, young Mr. Jones, make sure you verify the following: A: you’ve actually made it past the first-down marker, or B: the penalty flag for a late hit you think is coming actually arrives. Otherwise, it just looks corny.
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