Patriots vs. Titans thumbs up, thumbs down: Kendrick Bourne helps score the home win

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The Patriots were supposedly rolling and Tennessee as banged up as any team in football with most of its stars on injured reserve heading into Sunday’s key AFC battle at Gillette Stadium. But the Titans very much hung with New England for much of the afternoon before the home squad was able to pull away for the 36-13 victory.

It wasn’t easy by any means – and New England had serious issues in terms of the ground game on both sides of the ball -- but Bill Belichick’s team (8-4) won its sixth game in a row to remain atop the AFC East and in contention for the No. 1 seed in the conference as the calendar is about to flip to December.

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Before turning the page to next weekend’s Monday night trip to Buffalo for a big AFC East battle with the Bills, here are the highs and lows from the win over Mike Vrabel’s Titans:

Thumbs up

Matt Judon – A few days after creating quite a stir with his critical comments about macaroni and cheese, Judon was back doing what he does best early on against the Titans. Having already established a career high in sacks, Judon brought down Matt Tannehill for a sack to force a Tennessee punt on just the third snap of the day, setting up elite opening field position for his offense. Judon did pick up a questionable roughing the passer call on a hit on Tannehill in the second quarter but also had a nice open field tackle on the scrambling QB in the third quarter. Overall Judon remained an active force on the New England front finishing with six tackles and two QB hits.

Mac Jones – Jones had a strange day in his first little taste of New England snow and chilly game temperatures. He led his team to the key win. His numbers were strong, especially considering that he had no running game support to speak of. But, he also had a few really ugly throws and was frazzled by an occasional blitz at times. Overall, though, Jones was a key part of the Patriots getting the job done on the way to victory finishing completing 23 of 32 passes for 310 yards with a pair of touchdowns and no interceptions for a 123.2 passer rating.

Kendrick Bourne – The energetic receiver’s first touchdown of the day was a strong grab on a pretty spot throw from Jones in the back corner of the end zone in the first quarter. His second was a pure display of hustle and athleticism for a 41-yard score down the right sideline in the third quarter, taking advantage of some poor Titans’ tackling. Bourne finished the day with five catches for 61 yards and the two touchdowns that were key to New England’s victory.

Nick Folk – The veteran kicker continues to be nearly perfect in everything he does. Folk hit field goals of 22, 37 and 44 yards in the first half to send New England to the locker room with a 16-13 advantage, though he did miss a 53-yarder just before the break. At that point Folk was a perfect 29-of-29 on the season on field goals shorter than 50 yards, the consistent kicker adding to that number with a 28-yard boot in the third quarter before tacking on a 52 yarder in the fourth.

J.C. Jackson – As is so often the case, Jackson was around the football when New England needed it most in the dogfight with the Titans. Jackson’s hustle and well-executed punch forced a fumble on a 30-yard D’Onta Foreman run in the third quarter that was a momentum-changer. Then, Mr. Interception was in the right place at the right time to haul in a Tannehill pass deflected by Devin McCourty for the fourth-down pick in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. Jackson now has a team-best seven interceptions through 12 games this season.

Thumbs down

Mike Onwenu – The second-year lineman was a fifth-round revelation as a rookie on the New England offensive line a year ago when he started all 16 games, including 10 at right tackle. Now, he’s been relegated to backup/rotational duty since the return of right tackle Trent Brown and in light of Ted Karras’ solid play at guard. Onwenu has been a darling of the Pro Football Focus crowds, but at this point Belichick doesn’t seem to feel the need to make the young lineman one of his top five starting options on a weekly basis. He entered the game for a few reps at left guard in place of Karras, and nothing against the journeyman veteran but it’s still disappointing to see that Onwenu isn’t higher on the Patriots depth chart at this point.

Run defense – The Patriots entered the meeting with the undermanned Titans sporting the NFL’s No. 8 rush defense and a growing reputation as a physical defensive front. Tennessee didn’t seem too impressed, though, utilizing a consistent ground game to control the line of scrimmage and hang in the game while notching a pair of 100-yard rushers. The Titans ran for 142 yards on 18 attempts in the first half, including a 68-yard touchdown on a give-up draw late in the second quarter in which Dontrell Hilliard ran right past McCourty for the score. Tennessee continued to run the ball until the score got a little out of hand, finishing with 39 rushing attempt for 270 yards (6.9 avg.), a season-high allowed on a tough day for the New England front.

Damien Harris – New England’s lead back just couldn’t get much going early against the Titans defense that ranked No. 4 against the run coming in. Harris ran it five times for just 8 yards on the Patriots opening scoring drive and that’s how he finished the first half. With the Titans having just turned the ball over on downs and trailing 29-13, Harris ran for 7 yards and then a 14-yard touchdown on consecutive plays late in the fourth quarter. He finished the day with 11 carries for 40 yards and the score, but he and his line struggled to have a positive impact early on against a physical Titans front.

Red zone offense – Part of the reason Folk got so many field goal chances was obviously New England struggling to find the end zone once in the red zone. The Patriots went just one for three inside the 20 in the first half. Then, after Belichick expressed his displeasure with his team’s red zone work to CBS at halftime, New England had to settle for another Folk field goal on its first drive of the second half. The Patriots red zone failures let the Titans hang around for a while, New England going two of five in the key area on the day.

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