Patriots hold top spot in AFC with win over Titans
FOXBOROUGH — The New England Patriots know they'll get a first-round bye in playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans' future is even more in doubt.
Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns to help the Patriots hold onto the top spot in the AFC, beating Tennessee 33-16 on Sunday after knocking Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota out with a knee injury.
The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, Mariota left the game and did not return after being sacked to stop consecutive second-quarter possessions. He said after the game he could have returned, but agreed with interim coach Mike Mularkey that it wasn't worth the risk.
"I wanted to go in right away," Mariota said, adding that he deferred to the wishes of the training staff. "I don't expect to be out for the rest of the year."
Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 267 yards for New England (12-2). James White caught seven passes for 71 yards, including a 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown, and Keshawn Martin had a 75-yard kickoff return to set up another score.
White was filling in at No. 1 running back, a job that had been held by Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount before they both sustained season-ending injuries. The big Patriots losses on Sunday were linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee), receiver Danny Amendola (knee) and safety Patrick Chung (hip).
All three left the game and did not return. No information about their conditions was immediately available.
"Guys are going out and guys are coming in," Brady said. "You're just trying to do what you can to be productive."
The Patriots have won two in a row since stumbling to consecutive losses — their first two-game losing streak since 2012. Instead, they have recorded their sixth straight season with at least 12 wins.
"Twelve wins, that's on the right track here," coach Bill Belichick said.
Rob Gronkowski caught a 5-yard touchdown pass, and Akiem Hicks fell on the ball in the end zone after Jamie Collins' strip-sacked Mariota for New England's other TD.
The rookie quarterback was sacked to end the next drive, too. Zach Mettenberger replaced him and completed 20 of 28 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns — both to Delanie Walker — and two interceptions.
Walker had a 7-yard catch in the third quarter and then a 57-yard rumble down the right sideline with 7 minutes left in the game. Ryan Succop missed the extra point, leaving Titans (3-11) with a 27-16 deficit.
But Brady led the Patriots to the Tennessee 23, and Stephen Gostkowski put one through off the upright to make it a two-touchdown game. After Collins intercepted Mettenberger and ran it back 51 yards to the Titans 16, Gostkowski added another field goal.
Already mired in a lost season, with coach Ken Whisenhunt fired midway through the season, the only thing left for the Titans is to get Mariota some experience — and add a high draft pick such as Ohio State defensive lineman Joey Bosa to the roster. Mariota has already missed two games this season with a left knee injury.
"We discussed bringing him back in," Mularkey said. "I'd rather err on the side of caution."
Brady took the Patriots 79 yards on their first possession, connecting with Gronkowski from 5 yards to make it 7-0. They made it 14-0 when Chandler Jones strip-sacked Mariota at the Tennessee 17; Hicks chased the ball and knocked it into the end zone before falling on it for the touchdown.
Tennessee's drive stalled again, but Danny Amendola fumbled the punt and the Titans took over at the New England 26. Unable to move — and again giving up a third-down sack of Mariota — they settled for a 49-yard field goal by Succop that helped them avoid the fate of their previous trip to New England, a 59-0 shutout in 2009.
But Mariota went to the sideline and never returned.
And things got worse on the field, too: Martin ran the kickoff back 75 yards to the Titans 30. On the next play, Brady threw a swing pass to White out of the backfield, and he ran it in to make it 21-3.
Notes: Brady was listed as questionable with an illness on Friday, but he started and played the whole game. ... Gostkowski missed just his second field goal attempt of the season and his first from inside of 50 yards. ... Other injuries in the game: Patriots WR Amendola (knee), LB Dont'a Hightower (knee) and S Patrick Chung (hip). ... Indianapolis had a record seven straight seasons of 12 or more wins from 2003-09. ... Brady needs to average 297.5 yards in the final two games of the regular season to reach 5,000 yards for the second time in his career.
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