The Patriots weren't always in championship form but they did just enough to roll past the Tennessee Titans with a 33-16 win at Gillette Stadium. Here are some random thoughts from the Patriots 12th victory of the season.
HICKS MAKING IT LOOK EASLEY -Dominique Easley was lost for the season when he was placed on injured reserve with a thigh injury earlier in the week. After Easley left the Texans game last week it was Akiem Hicks who took his place and finished with a pair of sacks in the second half. Hicks maintained his strong play as an interior sub rusher against the Titans, recording a sack in the first quarter and then recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter. Hicks has provided a steady presence as an inside rusher and perhaps has even exceeded the production Easley had provided in that department. He had served as a rotational defensive tackle earlier in the year, mostly in running situations, but lately he's made his presence felt in the pass rush department.
GRONK WRINKLES -The Patriots unveiled a couple of nice wrinkles involving Rob Gronkowski on the opening drive of the game. The first came on second-and-nine from the Titans 25 when he was sent in motion behind Tom Brady, who was lined up in shotgun formation. As the tight end trailed behind Brady as if to take an end-around but instead continued into the right flat where he grabbed a short Brady pass and rumbled 13 yards for the first down. He later finished the drive on third-and-three from the 5 when he beat linebacker Avery Williamson with a quick out and easily caught the touchdown pass from Brady. Gronkowski was lined up inside on the play and shook loose immediately off the snap, which was fortunate because Brady faced immediately pressure and was forced to get rid of the ball quickly. Gronkowski wasn't involved in the passing game much after that but those two plays allowed New England to get off to a quick start.
PUNT RETURN PROBLEMS - For the third time in four weeks the Patriots fumbled on a punt return and lost the ball. Chris Harper (Denver) and Keyshawn Martin (Houston) lost the first two and against Tennessee it was Danny Amendola, who was stripped by Phillip Supernaw after a 5-yard return. Cody Riggs recovered at the Patriots 26, leading to a 49-yard Ryan Succop field goal. Amendola is also battling a knee injury and left the game for good in the first half. He was announced as questionable to return but never did. Martin took his place in the second half but didn't get a chance to return any punts.
COLLINS COMING ON -After returning to the lineup two weeks ago following a lengthy absence due to injury, Jamie Collins enjoyed his best game since his return. He was his normally active self while filling the stat sheet, compiling eight tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and an interception that he returned 51 yards in the fourth quarter. Of all the plays he came up the most impressive was the sack, which resulted in an 8-yard loss in the second quarter. With Tennessee looking to get on the board after recovering a fumble in patriots territory, Collins executed a perfect delayed blitz on third down to force a field goal. Collins waited as the running back committed and then executed his blitz over the right side and buried Marcus Mariota and knocking him out of the game with a knee injury. Having a healthy Collins back in the lineup has definitely been a huge plus for the defense.
SUB LOOKS -The Patriots have used a lot of lineups up front that have included edge rushers Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard but on Sunday there was a little bit of a twist added to that. At times in passing situations Jones was removed while Hicks stayed on the field and lineup up over the ball. Ninkovich stayed on the right side while Sheard moved to Jones' spot on the defensive left. The varied fronts proved to be successful as the Patriots racked up five more sacks in what has been one of their most productive seasons in that department. Jones also got in on the fun and recorded a pair, including a strip sack that resulted in Hicks' touchdown. Jones now has a career-high 12.5 sacks, which ties him with Mike Vrabel for the third most in a season by a Patriot.
BACKING IT UP -The banged up Patriots backfield received balanced contributions from their three remaining healthy backs. Brandon Bolden got the call as the lead back and finished with 10 carries for 36 yards while practice squad call up Joey Iosefa made his NFL debut and chipped in with 14 carries for 51 yards. While both averaged a meager 3.6 yards per carry, they were able to pick up positive yardage for the most part and keep the Patriots out of long-yardage situations. Iosefa came up with one of the highlights of the day when he trucked cornerback Cody Sensabaugh en route to a 15-yard pickup. But the best of the bunch was also the one who saw the least amount of action. James White continues to impress in the passing back roll, especially as a receiver. He caught seven of the eight passes thrown his way and racked up 71 yards. Included among those receptions was a 30-yard touchdown on a screen in which he displayed tremendous patience before shooting upfield for the touchdown. He also had a 70-yard reception wiped out by a pass interference penalty called against Martin.
INJURIES MOUNT -The Patriots growing injury report will likely have a few additions next week. While the defense saw the return of Dont'a Hightower after the linebacker missed the previous two games with a knee injury, he wasn't able to finish. Hightower left in the second half favoring his knee and did not return. Safety Patrick Chung suffered a hip injury in the fourth quarter and also didn't return. Earlier, Amendola was forced out of the game by a knee injury. Interestingly, before the game center Bryan Stork was listed as one of the seven inactives despite being listed as probable after missing Friday's practice for non-injury reasons. Belichick was asked about it after the game and replied, "coaching decision" when asked why Stork didn't play. Reports indicated Stork is dealing with the death of a close family member and that was likely the reason Belichick chose to sit him.
EXTRA POINTS -The Patriots won their 12th game for the sixth straight season, joining Indianapolis (2003-09) as the only two teams to ever accomplish that. ... New England improved to 54-9 in the month of December since 2001. ... Hicks' touchdown was the first of the season recorded by the defense. ... Brady finished with two touchdown passes, giving him 35 on the season. It marked the fourth season he's thrown at least 35 in a season, tying him with Peyton Manning for the most in league history. ... Gronkowski upped his season yardage total to 1,072, putting him on pace to challenge his career high of 1,327. He's on pace to finish with 1,225 receiving yards. ... Stephen Gostkowski missed just his second field goal of the season, pushing a 48-yarder wide right.