FOXBORO, Mass. (WTVF) — Playing shorthanded the Titans knew they’d have to play a near perfect game Sunday against the red-hot Patriots to have a chance to win. The effort was there, but the execution fell far short of that lofty bar in a 36-13 loss.
Missed opportunities, special teams mistakes and four turnovers all played a role as the Titans lost a second straight game for the first time since early November of last year.
Even without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones the Titans moved the ball. They had 355 total yards, but missed opportunities early and turnovers late held them to just 13 points.
Randy Bullock, who has been one of the most consistent kickers in the league this year, missed an extra point for the second straight week and also doinked a 44-yard field goal off the right upright as the Titans left four points off the board in a first half they only trailed 16-13.
The Titans actually produced their highest rushing output of the season with 270 yards on the ground. Dontrell Hilliard ran for 131 yards including a stunning 68-yard touchdown on a third and four draw late in the second quarter. D’Onta Foreman ran for 109, but both backs had costly fumbles as the backfield coughed the ball up three times in all.
Ryan Tannehill did a much better job of managing the game this week without his top three receivers available, but threw a fourth quarter interception as he tried to force a ball to Cody Hollister on fourth and goal from the two. It’s Tannehill’s fifth interception in the past two weeks and league-leading 13th of the season. He had seven all of last year.
While the Titans offense has turned it over nine times in the two losses, the defense hasn’t been able to get the ball back. After forcing a flurry of turnovers in their six-game winning streak, the Titans failed to get a takeaway against the Texans and came up empty again Sunday against the Patriots while allowing their second highest point total of the season.
Bullock’s wayward kicks weren’t the only special teams issue as well. The Titans had a holding penalty on the opening kickoff that forced them to start from their own 11. After a three and out, Brett Kern looked to have flipped the field with a booming punt that rolled dead at the New England 32, but two more penalties backed them up again. Kern’s next punt was shorter and returned back to the Tennessee 37.
It was a difference of 31 yards of field position and set the Pats up for the first of two Mac Jones to Kendrick Bourne touchdown passes.
The kickoff coverage unit also allowed a big return to start the second half compounded by a facemask penalty on Matthias Farley that gave the Patriots starting field position at the Tennessee 49. Moments later Nick Folk hit one of his five field goals to give New England a 19-13 lead.
The Titans defense appeared to run out of some gas late as Bourne broke free for a 41-yard sideline straddling touchdown reception highlighted by several poor angles and missed tackles. And Damien Harris ran right through the defense on a 14-yard touchdown late.
The Patriots were the better team Sunday, as you would expect given the state of the two rosters. But the Titans’ self-inflicted wounds ruined any shot they had at springing an upset.
The good news is the Titans are still in first place in the AFC South, by two games over the Colts thanks to Tom Brady and the Bucs’ dramatic win in Indianapolis Sunday. The even better news is that after 12 grueling weeks of games to start the season the Titans now finally have their bye week.
It will be a chance for this team to try to get healthy both physically and mentally ahead of the stretch run.
How many of the 17 players currently on Injured Reserve they’ll get back, and how soon, remains to be seen. Those that do return will come back to a much more manageable closing stretch.
After playing the league’s toughest schedule through 12 games, including eight playoff teams from last year - six in the past seven weeks, the Titans now have the easiest remaining slate. Not one of their remaining five opponents has a winning record, though the two win Texans - the season’s final opponent - beat them last week in Nashville.
And that’s the thing. The Titans are still in a good position, leading the division and in control of their own destiny. But if they’re going to get back into the discussion for the AFC’s top seed - and the precious bye that comes with it - or be a serious contender in the playoffs they have to get healthy.
You can’t fault the effort, but the next man up just simply isn’t as good as the man he’s replacing in most of these cases, and it’s catching up with the Titans.
Right now their margin for error is slim, and the Patriots methodically exposed that on Sunday.