FOXBOROUGH — Style points are a bonus in the NFL, and the Patriots certainly didn't earn any in Sunday's 33-16 win over the Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium. But they clinched a first-round playoff bye, and moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
Tom Brady threw for 267 yards and a pair of touchdowns — one to Rob Gronkowski — and the Patriots notched their first defensive score of the season when Akiem Hicks recovered a Marcus Mariota fumble in the end zone.
At 12-2, the victory kept them atop the AFC standings, one game ahead of Cincinnati (11-3) and two ahead of Denver (10-4). Even though the Patriots lost to the Broncos, they're guaranteed to finish no worse than second in the standings, thanks to Denver's loss on Sunday at Pittsburgh. Cincinnati plays at Denver next Monday night.
The way injuries are piling up, the Patriots might need that playoff bye week to rest. A season that has seen them deal with injury almost every game added three more key players to the long list. Wide receiver Danny Amendola and linebacker Dont'a Hightower left with knee injuries, and safety Patrick Chung was sent off with a hip injury. None returned to the game.
Even without those three — plus safety Devin McCourty (ankle), center Bryan Stork (not injury-related), wide receiver Julian Edelman (foot), and tight end Scott Chandler (knee) — the Patriots simply plugged rookies and no-names into the game (Joey Iosefa, anyone?) and handled the overmatched Titans with relative ease.
"It wasn't as pretty as we would like, but it's December football, so [we're] just glad to get the win," said Brady, who missed Friday's practice with an illness and was listed as questionable to play, then completed 23 of 35 passes. "Guys are going out, guys are coming in, and you're just doing the best you can to be productive and eliminate critical mistakes and take advantage of scoring opportunities."
Brady discusses Patriots win over Titans
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said he was “glad to get the win” at Sunday’s game. The Patriots defeated the Titans 33-16 for their 12th win of the season.
They didn't take full advantage of their scoring opportunities; when the offense stalled, Stephen Gostkowski came on to convert 4 of 5 field goals. A 24-3 Patriots halftime lead was cut to 27-16 after a pair of touchdown catches by Delanie Walker, and the Patriots were held without a touchdown in the second half. Two fourth-quarter field goals by Gostkowski accounted for the final margin.
This one was all but over not long after it began. For the sixth time this season, the Patriots scored a touchdown the first time they had the ball — they won the toss and deferred, per team policy — going 79 yards in 11 plays, with Brady hitting Gronkowski from 5 yards.
Early in the second quarter, Mariota was sacked by Chandler Jones and fumbled, with Hicks scooping up the ball at the Tennessee 5-yard line, losing control of it as he approached the goal line, and regaining possession in the end zone. The defensive score gave the Patriots a 14-0 lead, and they were on their way.
Iosefa, who was promoted from the practice squad the day before and was making his NFL debut, rushed 14 times for 51 yards. A native of American Samoa, Iosefa steamrolled Tennessee cornerback Coty Sensabaugh on a 15-yard gain late in the second quarter, maybe the play of the game. On a day that finally felt like December, it served as a holiday season snapshot of the Patriots' temperature: Against a team like the Titans — who fell to 3-11 — the Patriots can reach deep into their bag of reserves and find someone who can, quite literally, run over an outmanned opponent.
The Patriots' leading rusher was someone who had never played an official NFL snap before Sunday. Their leading receiver was actually a running back; James White had seven catches for 71 yards, and would have had double the yardage if a 70-yard play wasn't wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty on Keshawn Martin. Martin made up for that miscue by returning a second-quarter kickoff 75 yards, the Patriots' longest of the season. It set up a 30-yard touchdown pass on a perfectly executed screen from Brady to White, and helped give the Patriots a 21-3 lead.
"I tried to be patient, let the offensive line get their blocks," said White. "They got them, and I just found room. [Brandon LaFell] had a great block down the field, and I just had a seam."
White, Iosefa, Martin, Hicks. Not the quartet anyone would expect to have starring roles, but that was the case on Sunday.
"It talks about the depth. You've got to look at coach [Bill] Belichick. He creates this team, and the depth that he's created has put us in positions where guys go down and other people step up," said safety Duron Harmon.
Harmon started just his fourth game of the season, in place of McCourty. Rookie safety Jordan Richards made his first start, and he and Harmon were joined by seldom-used safety Nate Ebner later in the game, after Chung limped off in the fourth quarter.
Hightower had missed the past two games with a knee injury, and was hurt in the third quarter. After being looked at in the locker room, Hightower returned to the sideline, in uniform, and was spotted in the postgame locker room with a wrap around his left knee. Amendola, who had just one catch for 3 yards, left in the second quarter, after he fumbled the ball away during a punt return, which led to the only points for the Titans in the first half, a 49-yard field goal.
The injuries to Amendola, Hightower, and Chung mark the latest in a string of Patriots limping to the sidelines. How many more can a team take?
"Only God knows. I don't know. We giggle about it, but it's obviously tough," said Matthew Slater. "We always think, 'The injuries, how are they going to affect the Patriots? How's it going to affect them moving forward?' I'm more concerned with the guy, the individual. That plays with your head when you get hurt.
"We still have to play, there's games still on the schedule. Nobody's going to be like, 'Oh, the Patriots are hurt. Poor them.' We have to move forward as a team and try to do the best we can, but at the same time we feel for those guys on a personal level."
At least whatever hurt the Patriots this time came during a victory. A work week that began with them clinching a seventh straight AFC East title ended with their sixth straight win over the Titans, one that helped secure a free pass out of wild-card weekend. It wasn't a dominant effort, but the game also was never in doubt.
"Good enough to win," Slater, after a long pause, said when asked how well the Patriots played. "Obviously there were some things that we would have liked to have done better. But it's hard to win in this league, it doesn't matter who you're playing. We'll take the win. Merry Christmas. It'll make for a better holiday for us."
Video: Bill Belichick on Patriots’ running game vs. Titans
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in a press conference that all running backs contributed to the win on Sunday against the Titans.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.