FOXBORO — A number of Patriots players have quoted their head coach, Bill Belichick, as saying, "The football season starts after Thanksgiving," a message that emphasizes being at their best toward the end of the schedule.
On Sunday, New England fans could not have asked for a better start to the holiday season.
The Patriots' 2-4 start feels like a distant memory and, on Sunday, against the AFC’s top-seeded Tennessee Titans, they put together one of their best performances of the year.
The Titans, despite being down multiple offensive weapons, were in striking distance to start the second half. That’s when the Patriots leaned on their elite defense, special-teams leaders and talented rookie quarterback to ensure a 36-13 blowout win.
The Patriots improve to 8-4 and have won six straight, with an important matchup against the Bills in Buffalo on deck.
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Here’s how it all went down:
The defense was turnover-happy
The Patriots' defense was going up against an offense without its best player, running back Derrick Henry, and top two receivers, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Tennessee still was able to challenge the Patriots — for a brief time anyway.
At one point, the game was close, but the Patriots' defense, which allowed a season-high 269 rushing yards, changed everything with four turnovers.
Following a Ryan Tannehill touchdown pass, the Titans were driving and within field goal range. With 1:47 left in the second quarter, however, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux forced a fumble by running back Dontrell Hilliard. Safety Kyle Dugger recovered the ball.
The next drive saw Hilliard run for a 68-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left in the half. The Pats went into halftime up, 16-13. Over the last three games, the Patriots' defense had allowed 40, 99 and 78 rushing yards. They gave up 143 rushing yards in the first half on Sunday.
The Patriots' defense continued to struggle against the run when the second half started, but they also made plays. With 10:34 left in the third quarter, D’Onta Foreman broke out for a 34-yard gain, but cornerback J.C. Jackson punched the ball out and his colleague, Jalen Mills, recovered the ball.
"See ball. Get ball," Jackson said. "I mean, he didn’t have good ball security.
"As a defense, we talk about creating turnovers every day. Every day, we punch out the ball, catching picks. What you do in practice is going to carry over in the game. That’s what happened."
In the fourth quarter, it happened again. The Pats could not stop the run and the Titans were at the 2-yard line. On fourth down, safety Devin McCourty deflected Tannehill’s pass and Jackson came away with the interception with 12:06 left in the fourth.
Mac Jones’ arm carried the offense
This might have been the coldest weather that quarterback Mac Jones had ever played in. It also turned out to be one of his best.
The Patriots' offense struggled in spurts on Sunday. They didn't run the ball very well and weren't entirely efficient in the red zone. The rookie
QB dazzled the Titans' defense with multiple deep passes. Jones completed 22-of-31 passes for a career-high 310 yards and two touchdowns.
Jones' first touchdown, with 7:37 left in the first quarter, was a beauty into the corner of the end zone as receiver Kendrick Bourne made a nice contested catch.
Bourne was another star of the day. With 5 minutes left in the third quarter, the receiver took a short pass over the middle, scampered to the opposite sideline, received a great block from receiver Jakobi Meyers and made multiple defenders miss en route to a 41-yard touchdown reception. That put the Pats up, 26-13.
"I think our receivers play with a lot of passion and, whether they get the ball or not, they are doing their job," Jones said. "I can rely on any of them and we can rely on any of them."
Although touchdowns were hard to come by for the offense, Jones led the Pats to multiple scoring drives. The rookie was on fire to start the second drive, completing his first four throws for gains of 22, 20, 16 and 13 yards to set up a field goal. With 5:01 left in the second quarter, Jones threw a 38-yard pass to Meyers, who made a highlight-reel catch. That set up another field goal.
Folk’s leg kicked in at the right times
The Patriots' offense had no problems pushing the ball but they struggled in the red zone. Those struggles led to place kicker Nick Folk's efficient day. The veteran has been one of the best kickers in the NFL this season and that was evident on Sunday.
After starting this game with a touchdown, the Patriots' offense went to Folk over and over again. The 37-year-old hit five field goals on Sunday, and scored 18 points.
All of the Patriots' special teams units excelled on this afternoon. Gunner Olszewski’s first punt return went for a gain of 15. That set up the Pats 37 yards away from the end zone and led to the team’s first touchdown.
The offense was stranded at the 8-yard line on its next drive but Folk finished that with a 22-yard boot. The next series saw the kicker hit a field goal from 37 yards out.
Following Dugger’s fumble recovery, Folk hit a game-long 44-yarder. He missed a 53-yard field goal before the half but, with 11:13 left in the third quarter, kicked a 28-yard field goal. That kick was set up by a 37-yard punt return by Olszewski.
"I thought our special teams came through for us again," Belichick said. "Gunner really helped us out at the end of the half and had a couple sparks there and thought we covered well and Nick banged them through like he usually does."
In the fourth quarter, Folk hit a 52-yard field goal. That tied the Patriots' franchise record, held by Stephen Gostkowski, with his fifth 50-yard field goal of the season.
Unlike New England, Tennessee ran into some special-teams issues, as kicker Randy Bullock missed an extra point and then a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Mac Jones New England Patriots defeat Tennessee Titans 36-13