FOXBOROUGH — Mac Jones was fired up.
The Patriots baby-faced quarterback popped up quickly after absorbing a pretty good shot in the back from Buster Skrine and emphatically signaled first down after his 7-yard run on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Only problem was, it wasn’t a first down. It was better.
Skrine’s hit, though legal and clean, appeared to light a fire under Jones’s teammates and they came to his defense and remained smoldering, outscoring and outmuscling the Titans over the final 30 minutes en route to a 36-13 win before a chilly Gillette Stadium crowd Sunday.
“Yeah, that’s your quarterback, you don’t ever want him to take a shot,” said center David Andrews. “Mac’s a tough guy but that’s our job to try and protect him.”
The Patriots (8-4) scored 20 unanswered points after the Jones hit, running their winning streak to six and jumping ahead of Buffalo for the top spot in the AFC East. The Patriots will be in Western New York a week from Monday for a prime-time showdown with the Bills (7-4).
Jones couldn’t help but laugh when reminded of his scramble.
“You talking about the one I ran on and thought I got the first down," he said. “I didn’t think I got the first down [on the run]. I thought they were going to call [a penalty on Skrine]. I slid like headfirst or whatever, but it didn’t count. It is what it is. I didn’t know there wasn’t a flag thrown. That was just a rookie error, there."
He didn’t make many of those.
On a day when the Patriots couldn’t find a ton of traction in the ground game until late, Jones was unflappable. He completed 23 of 32 passes for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The second-half surge was vital as the shorthanded Titans hung around (they trailed, 16-13, at the half) by using a punishing ground game to the tune of 270 net yards rushing.
“They schemed us up pretty good," said Patriots defensive lineman Davon Godchaux. “Any time you give up 100 yards rushing, that’s not a good day but today I’ll take it, you know, 13 points. Like I said, yards don’t beat you, but points do."
Jones delivered a perfect fade to Kendrick Bourne, who showed excellent body control and concentration to snag the ball and tap his toes despite having Kevin Byard in his mug, for a 7-0 lead on the first drive.
It was a lead they never relinquished but had to work hard to keep.
Ryan Tannehill answered with a 1-yard scoring strike to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine but Randy Bullock’s extra point clanged off the right upright.
Nick Folk sandwiched a pair of field goals (22 and 37 yards) around a Bullock miss from 44 yards (another doinker off the right post).
New England capitalized on the first of four Titan turnovers (Dontrell Hilliard fumble) and increased the lead 16-6 on Folk’s third field — this on from 44 yards.
Hilliard gained a bit of redemption on the next series, gashing through a hole in the middle of the defense and running 68 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest scoring play the Patriots have allowed the season and cut the host’s advantage to 16-13.
Folk hit his fourth field goal (a 28-yarder) after Skrine’s hit on Jones stalled the drive.
D’Onta Foreman rumbled 30 yards on the ensuing possession, but J.C. Jackson’s punchout fumble effectively knocked the life out of the Titans.
After trading punts, Jones hit Bourne for a 41-yard catch-and-run touchdown that boosted New England’s lead to 26-13, though it felt a lot bigger.
Taking a quick strike across the middle from Jones, Bourne got a perfect excuse-me block from Jakobi Meyers on safety Amani Hooker and then delivered a punishing stiff-arm to linebacker Jayon Brown, while staying inbounds, all the way to the end zone.
“That was pretty nifty," said Meyers. “My guy must have got some cat senses or something because he definitely tight-roped that sideline pretty well."
Jackson ended the Titans final threat when he picked off Tannehill in the end zone on a fourth and 2. Rolling to his right, Tannehill tried to force a throw to Cody Hollister but Devin McCourty tipped it in the air and it floated like a snowflake — which were flying at Gillette — into Jackson’s hands.
It was Jackson’s seventh pick of the season and the 24th of his career.
“[Devin] really kept it alive and J.C., you leave any trash laying around, he’s going to pick it up," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said with a smile.
Tannehill completed just 11 of 21 passes for 93 yards and was an abysmal 1 of 8 for 14 yards, with a sack and an interception, in the second half.
Damien Harris’s bullish 14-yard touchdown run put the icing on the chilly victory for the Patriots, who will turn their attention to the Bills, who swept the season series in 2020.
“Next week’s going to be a fight. “It’s going to be a battle," said McCourty. “As Bill would say, ‘If you like competition, next Monday night is where you want to be.’ "
More Patriots-Titans stories
- Kendrick Bourne, J.C. Jackson come to the rescue in Patriots’ hard-nosed win over the Titans | Instant Analysis
- On Football: Patriots’ defense had its struggles, but was opportunistic as ever in win over Titans
- Dan Shaughnessy: Mac Jones can take the hits, make the plays, manage the game — and play in the cold
- Unconventional Review: In a matchup of talented, well-coached teams, Patriots wore down banged-up Titans
- ‘Eight games ain’t enough.’ Here’s what Bill Belichick had to say after the Patriots’ victory over the Titans
- ‘I love you, Coach.’ Mac Jones opens up on relationship with late high school coach Corky Rogers
- Titans coach Mike Vrabel knows the score: ‘This game’s about points, not stats’