FOXBORO, Mass. — Make it six consecutive victories for the New England Patriots.
The Patriots dispatched an injury-depleted Tennessee Titans squad 36-13 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium to improve to 8-4 on the season and retake first place in the AFC East. They’ll enter Week 13 ranked either first or second in the AFC, depending on the outcome of Sunday night’s Baltimore Ravens game.
New England’s Mac Jones became just the third quarterback this season to pass for more than 300 yards against Tennessee’s defense, and the second to do so in regulation. The first-round rookie completed 23 of 32 passes for a season-high 310 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions, posting a 123.2 passer rating that was the second-highest of his young career.
It wasn’t a flawless performance from the Patriots QB, however, as he struggled at times on a chilly afternoon in Foxboro.
Here are five thoughts on Jones’ latest outing:
— Jones capped New England’s opening drive with a perfectly placed third-down floater to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who made a highlight-reel catch for a 4-yard touchdown.
Bourne beat safety Kevin Byard on the play, one of the NFL’s top players at his position. Byard later misplayed a 38-yard deep-ball completion to Jakobi Meyers.
Bourne and Jones have developed a fruitful connection of late. The two also teamed up for a tight-window touchdown during the Patriots’ Week 10 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Three of Bourne’s four scores this season have come on throws with a completion probability below 30%, according to NFL Next Gen Stats’ player tracking data, the second-most such hookups between any QB and pass-catcher.
Jones and Bourne connected for a second touchdown midway through the third quarter. On that play, Bourne caught a shallow crosser, juked one Titans defender, slipped past a handy Meyers pick and stiff-armed a final would-be tackler as he tightroped 41 yards down the sideline.
Jones was 5-for-6 for 61 yards and two scores when targeting Bourne on Sunday. Over the last four games, the 26-year-old receiver has caught all but two of his 18 targets, establishing himself as one of the Patriots’ most reliable and productive pass-catchers.
— Byard said this week that Jones “can dink and dunk it as much as he wants. If they do get in the red zone, we’ll be good.”
That quote got the veteran defensive back Old Takes Expose’d after Bourne’s early score, but the Patriots quickly lost their red-zone momentum. They advanced inside the Titans’ 20-yard line on three of their next five drives but failed to score, settling for a series of Nick Folk field goals. New England had another first-half drive that stalled at the Tennessee 26.
These failed trips featured some costly mistakes by Jones. The rookie overthrew multiple passes into or near the end zone, including one to a wide-open Hunter Henry that should have resulted in a walk-in touchdown.
Jones also had one forgettable red-zone sequence in which he had a swing pass to Bourne slip out of his hands, nearly threw an interception one play later and then came up short of the first-down marker on a third-down scramble.
The Patriots were fortunate to have Folk. The veteran went 5-for-6 on field-goal attempts, with his lone miss coming from 53 yards out.
— The Patriots struggled to run the ball until the fourth quarter. Fifty-nine of their 105 rushing yards came on their final two possessions, with Damien Harris closing out the scoring with a 14-yard touchdown run with 4:38 remaining.
Tennessee’s defense had allowed 100-plus rushing yards in just one of its previous 10 games, so this wasn’t expected to be an easy matchup for New England’s typically productive ground game.
Though New England’s rushing attack sputtered for much of the afternoon, Jones thrived off play-action, going a perfect 11-for-11 for 169 yards, per Next Gen Stats.
— The Titans succeeded in disputing Jones with blitzes from the secondary, just as the Atlanta Falcons did last week. Byard was able to bag a third-down sack with a delayed safety blitz up the middle. Another Byard blitz — this one off the edge — forced a hurried throw that fell incomplete.
Tennessee head coach Mike Vrabel played under current Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees for much of his tenure as a Patriots linebacker — Pees was New England’s linebackers coach from 2004 to 2005 and its defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009 — so it’s not surprising that both used some of the same methods to fluster their former team’s young QB.
Other teams likely will throw similar blitzes at Jones moving forward until he proves he can handle them.
— It’s fair to wonder whether the chilly conditions (temperatures in the mid-30s with some light snow flurries) contributed to some of Jones? unevenness.
The weather was far from awful by Foxboro standards, but Jones is a Florida native who played his college ball in the SEC. He’s not used to cold like this, and he seemed to have some trouble gripping the ball at times, like on the aforementioned incompletion to Bourne.
The Alabama product will need to acclimate to New England winter in a hurry. Three of the Patriots’ final five regular-season games are either at home or in Buffalo, where the Patriots will be next Monday night.