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Football season starts after Thanksgiving; Patriots show Titans, AFC they’re ready with win vs. Titans (10 things we learned)

MassLive.com logo MassLive.com 11/29/2021 Nick O'Malley, masslive.com

Bill Belichick always likes to say that “football season starts after Thanksgiving.”

On Sunday, the New England Patriots showed that they’re ready for the cold winter stretch with a physical 36-13 win over a Tennessee Titans team that had the best record in the AFC.

Sure, the Titans had a laundry list of injuries coming into this week. Yeah, the Patriots got gashed on the ground (even without Derrick Henry). Did they struggle in the red zone for much of the day? Absolutely.

All that matters is that the Patriots did the things they needed to win, which they did handily after pulling away late. They dominated the turnover battle and stepped up to make big plays in big situations.

The Patriots have now won six in a row and are a team that no one in the AFC wants to play right now. This team is getting hot at the right time.

Here are 10 things we learned from Sunday’s game.

1. Mac Jones does more than dink and dunk; but he also makes mistakes

The Titans were pretty complimentary of Jones this week in talking about the rookie’s play. However, Titans safety Kevin Byard is going to get some backlash for a quote he gave about the rookie quarterback dinking and dunking as a passer.

“As long as we keep the ball in front of us, he can dink and dunk it as much as he wants,” the star safety said this week. “If they do get in the red zone, we’ll be good.”

Well, it turns out the Titans weren’t good out of the gate. Just ask Byard, who was in coverage on Jones’ beautiful tear-drop pass to Kendrick Bourne in the corner of the end zone. (You can watch the play here.)

Jones also got the best of Byard with his 38-yard deep ball to Jakobi Meyers as well.

Jones’ stats look great, and he’s showing more and more each week that he’s a threat to throw downfield. But he’s still making mistakes, taking questionable sacks and stalling in the red zone. So, in the end, the Titans were good in the red zone for a while.

The Patriots settled for a lot of field goals Sunday. Some of that falls on Jones. His overthrow of a wide-open Hunter Henry was especially rough.

2. A double doink: Kicking at Gillette is rough

According to ESPN, opposing kickers are hitting only about 62% of their field goals at Gillette, which is the lowest for visitors in the league.

The conditions were particularly tough for Titans kicker Randy Bullock early on. Bullock missed a PAT and a field goal in the first half, with both going off the right upright on the lighthouse end of the stadium.

These struggles have really highlighted how good Nick Folk has been this season. The veteran has been money for the Patriots while opposing kickers have been struggling.

3. Mac Jones and the offense are having issues vs. blitzes

This is something we saw last time out against the Falcons, the Patriots are having problems when opposing defenses send defensive backs on blitzes late, resulting in free rusher coming at Jones.

On Sunday, there were a couple of instances where Byard came free against Jones. The first resulted in a hit and wayward incompletion. The second was an 11-yard sack.

This is becoming a notable vulnerability for the Patriots that needs to be addressed, both in terms of blitz pickup and Jones getting rid of the ball faster.

4. The Patriots are starting to get the fumble luck to bounce in their favor

New England’s early struggles were marked by some untimely fumbles by running backs that had huge ramifications. Damien Harris in particular had some big ones.

But on Sunday, that script slipped. The most notable on Sunday came when D’Onta Foreman was sprinting ahead on a 34-yard run. That was until J.C. Jackson came flying in to poke the ball out and Jalen Mills managed to fall on it before going out of bounds.

The Patriots were also beneficiaries of a huge fumble when the Titans were driving before halftime. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux made a great play, stripping the ball from Dontrell Hilliard, setting up the Patriots for a field goal.

However, that celebration was short-lived.

5. The Patriots defense imploded at the strangest time

The Titans’ final drive of the first half seemed destined for disaster as tight end Anthony Firkser nearly fumbled it away and a Tannehill pass bounced of Kyle Van Noy’s hands.

Then on 3rd-and-2, the Patriots simply collapsed as Hilliard took a seemingly innocent draw play up the middle against a New England defense that was apparently expected a pass.

Hilliard sprinted through a wide-open lane, past an out-of-position Adrian Phillips and shook off one of the team’s most reliable tacklers in Devin McCourty en route to a 68-yard touchdown run.

After a stretch where the Patriots defense was seemingly impregnable, they let up their worst play of the season out of nowhere.

This was part of a recurring theme.

6. The Patriots got gashed on the ground

There’s no getting around it. Even with Derrick Henry out of the lineup for Tennessee, the Patriots had a miserable day defending the run.

The Titans eclipsed 200 yards on the ground before hitting the fourth quarter, with D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard popping off some huge runs.

Fortunately for the Patriots, the Titans kept going to the passing game in key moments throughout the game. By the end, the Patriots had pulled away, forcing the Titans to abandon the ground game.

However, the Titans’ success on the ground was a noticeable weakness Sunday.

7. Gillette Stadium (technically) had its first snow game of the season

Cold weather was always in the forecast this weekend. But around the second quarter, we got a bit of a pleasant surprise via some snowflakes falling at Gillette.

There wasn’t enough to coat the field, but it did add to the post-Thanksgiving atmosphere.

After a weird 2020 season with no fans due to COVID, it was a nice moment of some exciting cold-weather football in Foxborough. It’s been a while, but it’s good to be back.

8. You should never give a Bill Belichick team a second chance to return a punt

We were reminded of this on the Titans’ first punt of the game, which was originally a 59-yard kick with no return that put New England on its own 31-yard line.

However, the Titans got flagged for a pre-snap penalty (two, actually), which meant they head to re-kick it with Brett Kern now kicking from the back of his own end zone.

This time, Kern’s punt went 47 yards and was brought back 15 yards by Gunner Olszewski.

All in all, the Patriots gained 32 yards of field position in the exchange.

The moral of the story: The Patriots will burn you in the kicking game if you give them a chance.

9. Matt Judon continues to dominate

New England’s most notorious Mac & Cheese hater continues to terrorize opposing quarterbacks like it’s Cheesasaurus Rex taking snaps. Judon got on the board early Sunday, sacking Tannehill on third down to force a punt on the Titans’ first series.

10. You. might not see an angrier challenge flag toss than Mike Vrabel’s on Sunday

Mike Vrabel had a beef with the officials when receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was initially ruled short of the goal line after slipping and falling on a pass — even though no Patriots defenders touched him before he crossed the plane.

The Titans won the challenge, but Vrabel seemed miffed that he had to go through the trouble to throw the red challenge flag. He vented his frustrations by walking onto the field, giving the refs a piece of his mind and firing the flag a good 15-20 yards and nearly hitting an end zone pylon.

You can watch the toss here.

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