FOXBOROUGH – At this time of year, NFL games come mostly in two categories: playoff-like and virtually meaningless.
New England's 33-16 win over Tennessee fell somewhere in between.
It was playoff-like in that a win would be a half-step toward securing a first-round bye (New England also needed Pittsburgh to beat Denver at home in a late afternoon kickoff). It was virtually meaningless in that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Even with several key players hobbled by various injuries, illnesses, and psychological obstacles, the Patriots were clearly the superior team and a comfortable win was all but assured. When they stepped onto the field, the Patriots' dominance was evinced from the opening drives on both sides of the ball. New England smothered rookie QB Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense to force a three-and-out punt, and the Patriots offense, led by a weakened Tom Brady (illness), marched calmly down the field to put up an easy touchdown.
The only concern for the playoff-bound Patriots – as it has been for more than a month now – was just to get through the afternoon without any further injures to significant players.
In that regard, however, New England was unsuccessful.
With under two minutes to play in the first half, Danny Amendola appeared to aggravate the left knee injury he suffered against Buffalo last month. It happened when he was tackled returning a punt. Amendola hobbled off and received medical attention on the bench for several minutes. At halftime, he was announced as being questionable to return, but did not go back in the game.
Late in the third quarter, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, in his first game back from a left knee injury of his own, aggravated that injury and received treatment on the bench for several minutes before being escorted to the locker room for further evaluation. Soon after, he reemerged, still in uniform – a somewhat positive sign – but did nothing more than observe the game.
Then, on Tennessee's fourth-quarter touchdown pass, safety Patrick Chung injured a hip trying to tackle the target of the pass, tight end Delanie Walker. Chung's teammate, linebacker Jonathan Bostic, collided with Chung while attempting to assist with the tackle and Chung crumpled to the ground. The medical staff attended to him for several minutes before he trotted gingerly to the sideline for further examination. He tried to walk off the injury for a few minutes before eventually retreating with a staffer to the locker room. His afternoon had come to an abrupt halt as well.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski, already hobbled somewhat by a right knee injury that's still not 100 percent, was further distracted by the death of a close friend late last week. That's what caused him to miss the final practice of the week, but it didn't stop him from scoring on that opening drive.
Gronk was not quite himself after that, though, having dropped a sure pass and seeing a couple others knocked out of his hands. He also appeared to be shaken up after falling out of the side of the end zone while trying to reel in a pass from Brady late in the fourth quarter. Gronkowski spent the next several minutes on the sideline trying to walk off the discomfort and eventually went back in on the next possession.
"This is football. It's physical every week," he observed in a decidedly understated tone. "Show me a game where there's no hitting… this isn't 7-on-7 or two-hand touch middle school. This is hitting every game. We have to expect to get hit big every time you step out on that field."
Problem is, the worst-case scenarios are becoming commonplace. It got so bad that a practice squad running back, rookie Joey Iosefa, was called on to lead the team in carries and rushing yards.
New week, new face, same result.
"It talks about the depth," observed safety Duron Harmon, who was stepping in for starter and co-captain Devin McCourty (right ankle). "Coach Belichick, I mean, he creates this team, and the depth he's created has put us in positions where guys go down and other people step up."
"Whenever a guy comes in," added Gronkowski, "they just come in and play hard. Everyone works hard at practice, no matter who it is. So, when they get called in the game, they're ready to play."
Even though the Patriots continue to find ways to overcome them to win games, you have to wonder just how much longer they can continue to do so. That's what makes securing a first-round playoff bye so much more important for them this season.
"It's a long season," Brady mused afterward. "You're always dealing with some type of adversities I would say. I think mental toughness is important in this sport to try to put whatever is going on on the side when you go out and play football for those three hours a week.
"All the guys [on this team] are pretty mentally tough, but I'd say to be 12-2 is a good record. I know it's not perfect. There are certainly a lot of things we could do better, but it's good to be 12-2… it's December football, so, just glad to get the win."