In reality, Patriots are going to have to do better than this
FOXBOROUGH — We've heard players remark, "We worked on that in practice," after the Patriots stupefy an unsuspecting opponent with a bit of strategy, subterfuge, or situational football preparedness. Well, the Patriots took that practice to the next level on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans by treating an actual game as a practice.
The only practice element missing from the Patriots' perfunctory 33-16 victory in the regular-season home finale at Gillette Stadium was coach Bill Belichick going out to squirt water on the ball when Tom Brady isn't looking to simulate wet weather.
The sole way to extract value beyond a 12th win out of this contest — that's employing the word generously — was for the Patriots to hone their situational football skills. So, one must assume that the Patriots' errors were manufactured in the best interests of the football team.
Once the Patriots went up, 14-0, on the timorous Titans on a Rob Gronkowski TD grab and a Chandler Jones strip sack recovered in the end zone by Akiem Hicks, any letup in focus or letdown in execution by the Patriots was completely by design.
You thought Danny Amendola fumbling on a punt return in the second quarter was yet another Patriots special teams forehead-slamming miscue, like Chris Harper's muffed punt against the Broncos or Keshawn Martin's punt return faux pas against the Texans?
Didn't you see the "Do Your Job" documentary?
Amendola obviously fumbled the ball, giving it to Tennessee at the Patriots' 26 with 11:24 left in the second quarter, so the Patriots' defense could work on sudden change — having to stop an opponent after they unexpectedly get the ball.
Of course the Patriots held the Titans to a field goal and knocked Tennessee rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota out of the game, as planned.
Mariota departed with a right knee injury after he was sacked by an unblocked Jamie Collins, ushered to the backfield by Tennessee's offensive line like a VIP.
Two plays after Martin's 75-yard kickoff return, James White waltzed into the end zone on a 30-yard screen to make it 21-3.
Then it was time for the Patriots to resume situational football.
On third and 8 from the Tennessee 31 with 1:56 left in the half, the Patriots curiously called a run for White. To the uninitiated, it looked like mercy or folly.
No, it was an opportunity to practice kicking into the open end of the stadium in chilly winter weather, of course. Stephen Gostkowski banged home a 43-yarder. They probably should have worked on the drop-kick there.
We all know the Patriots love their patented double-score at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second. But against Tennessee they simulated a scenario where they don't get their birthright bookend points.
Gostkowski missed a 48-yard field goal wide right with 25 seconds left in the first half, and the Patriots went three-and-out on their first drive of the third quarter.
Leading, 27-10, in the third quarter, defensive back Leonard Johnson committed a holding penalty to negate Malcolm Butler's interception.
That allowed the Patriots to work on how to respond when getting jobbed by the officials because we all know the NFL has it out for the Patriots.
They did the same on the offensive side of the ball in the fourth, when Martin wiped out a 70-yard pass play to White with offensive pass interference.
Some see costly penalties. The Patriots see situational football opportunities.
It's just like how with the restrictions on training camp practice time, Belichick has taken to using the first four games of the season as extended preseason to fine-tune his team.
Strangely, I didn't hear as much about that this year. Perhaps, it is passe.
That 57-yard touchdown the Patriots gave up to Delanie Walker that pulled Tennessee within 27-16 was simply the precursor to generating late-game practice scenarios.
The Patriots simulated needing a fourth-quarter drive to ice the game, and a field goal where there was a low snap and Gostkowski had to scramble to bank a 42-yarder off the right upright.
Who thinks of these things? The Patriots, that's who.
You can laugh off mistakes toying with the Titans, but it won't be so funny in the playoffs, even if you do have a first-round bye and home field.
"We could have played a whole lot better," said Butler, whose second interception of the season was one of three Tennessee turnovers. "It wasn't perfect, but it's the NFL, and a win is a win. But we most definitely want to take advantage of more opportunities."
Instead, they just took advantage of a Titans team that is in their league literally, but in a galaxy far, far away competitively.
The Patriots are competing for a Super Bowl. The Titans are rummaging through the rubble to find pieces other than Mariota to build around.
Tennessee entered the game having played 14 rookies this season. Against the Jets, the Titans started six players on offense in their first or second years.
A microcosm of this game was practice squad running back Joey Iosefa trucking Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh on a 15-yard run late in the second quarter.
The Titans were roadkill from opening kickoff.
Tennessee should consider itself lucky that Belichick has the appropriate reverence for Titans assistant head coach/defense Dick LeBeau, the doyen of defensive innovators in the league.
It seemed that Belichick took pity on LeBeau's injury-diminished defense.
If this had been Joe Gibbs in 2007, the Patriots would have hung half a hundred on the forgettable Titans.
Simulated scenarios are nice.
In reality, the Patriots are going to have to play more precisely and more passionately the rest of the way or they'll find themselves in a situation where they're not playing in February.
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.