NASHVILLE - Tidbits, observations, bold statements and words spoken from the Patriots 34-13 win over the Titans. It's fun to try and find the junctures of the game where momentum hangs in the balance. The plays that can either put air into sails or take it right out. Sometimes they're obvious. Sometimes you need to dig a little. There were two plays in the third quarter of this 34-13 Patriots win that fit the "dig a little" definition. First, setting the scene. After a Patriots drive stalled to start the second half, the Titans needed just four plays to steam downfield and make the score 21-10 on a Jake Locker to Nate Washington touchdown pass. The LP Field crowd found its voice and, when the Patriots were stuck in a third-and-6 at their own 24. Go three-and-out and now you've got a young team with some momentum coming back at you. And Tom Brady found Rob Gronkowski out on the left for a gain of 7, with Gronkowski making a near-impossible catch, plucking a bullet off the grass with his fingertips. Three plays later, on third-and-9, Brady again drilled it into Gronkowski in a crowd and he cradled the ball and got a favorable spot for another first down. The drive didn't result in points but it consumed time (4:30) and field position (70 yards when the Titans took over at their 10). The Titans wound up punting from their 2, the Patriots took over at the Tennessee 48 and when Stevan Ridley scored on a 1-yard run with 1:08 left in the quarter, it was 28-10 and drama had been removed. Everything is tied together in a football game. One circumstance leads to the next. But there are plays when crescendoes are either reached or avoided and those two Gronk catches qualify. The availability of right guard Dan Connolly is going to be a situation to watch. He left in the second half with a head injury and didn't return which leads to the concern it may be a concussion. Connolly's dealt with them in the past and the worry has to be (after concern for his brain), how the Patriots succession plan works (it was Donald Thomas on Sunday) and whether Brian Waters just got leverage or if that ship has sailed. On the messy, manic play where Jake Locker injured his left shoulder, there will be blame laid at the feet of the replacement officials. There shouldn't be. The bang-bang nature of the play on which Nate Washington was sandwiched by Tavon Wilson and Jerod Mayo made it impossible to tell if it was a fumble or an incompletion. Whether the refs were real or fake, that play went down as it needed to. Assume the fumble and play it out. For those of you who go to the stadiums for the NFL football games as opposed to the comfort of your couch, you'll like the fact the replay reviewsthe officials see are on the JumboTron as well simultaneously. FIRST HALF NOTES Tough start for Ras-I Dowling at corner on the first drive, coming in for the nickel alignment in place of Hightower and bouncing Kyle Arrington to the slot. He allowed a 17-yard completion to Kendall Wright on third-and-7 and had a PI as well. Marquice Cole - who had a very good preseason - later took over the slot position in nickel and Arrington stayed outside. The Titans picked up a first down on fourth-and-inches throwing over the top of Arrington who had 1-on-1 coverage. They got 17 yards to Damian Williams on a nice throw by Jake Locker. That first drive ended well for the Patriots when a fairly blatant PI on Devin McCourty went uncalled in the end zone and Tennessee settled for a field goal. McCourty was in as the kick returner for the lone Titans kickoff. Brandon Lloyd's first Patriots touchdown shoulda happened but, on that fake reverse bomb the Patriots love to run, Lloyd slowed down and saw a wobbly pass from Brady float over his head. Brady also had a pass glance off of the face of Wes Welker. Those two dropsmisplays were 66 percent of his incompletions. He finished 10 for 13 for 123 and two touchdown passes. The Patriots defense held Chris Johnson to 9 yards on 9 carries in the first half. Outstanding tackling all half. The offensive line held up 90 percent of the half. The downside? A sack by Kamerion Wimbley yielded by Nate Solder. That resulted in a cut to Brady's nose. Stevan Ridley had a big first half with 58 yards on nine carries. SebastianVollmer and Marcus Cannon split time on the right tackle edge. Welker (1 catch, 5 yards) sat for the second series. Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner - a Patriots pair of rookie safeties - showed up with a pick and a nice special teams tackle. Aaron Hernandez' versatility remains remarkable. He's had a direct snap carry for 5, a screen reception, and a 23-yard touchdown. Julian Edelman has had a bigger role in the regular offense in terms of snaps. He's still making shaky decisions on special teams, though, fielding a punt he should have fair caught. He got banged on the play and fumbled but the Titans were flagged for interfering with the catch. Jermaine Cunningham had a sack from the defensive tackle spot.
FOXBORO – Griff Whalen was at the epicenter of one of the stupidest, funniest, most “did that just happen?!” plays in NFL history.
So indescribable it never even really earned a name, it was the fourth-down gadget play the Colts tried to run against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football in the first meeting between the teams after Indy ran to the principal’s office to start Deflategate.
Whalen was the center on that play (I tried to call it “Fourth-and-Wrong” but it didn’t take) and the millisecond between him snapping the ball and the three players processing that the ball had indeed been snapped is perhaps my favorite moment of the past several seasons.
Whalen is a Patriot now, brought in this week in the wake of Danny Amendola’s knee injury presumably to fill Amendola’s role as a punt returner and wideout. The Colts released him last January, the Dolphins picked him up and cut him at the end of training camp and the Chargers had him on their roster from mid-September until releasing him last month after eight games, two catches and 22 yards. He returned kickoffs for San Diego but no punts since 2015.
The primary area of need for the Patriots is on punt returns. Rookie Cyrus Jones’ transition to appearing comfortable remains glacially slow. It was Jones’ muff last week that brought on Amendola in relief. When Amendola hurt his ankle on a late-game return, the Patriots were forced to decide between Jones, wideout Julian Edelman (who doesn’t need extra work) and making a move.
Whalen is a move they made.
The slight and baby-faced Whalen indicated he had fielded some punts in practice, saying it went, “Fine.” Punt returns are something he’s done “since I was a kid.”
His first impression of the team was, "A lot of what I expected to see. A lot of detail. A lot of effort in practice. Good coaching all-around. I am excited to be here. I was excited to come into a good team that I’d gone against a few times. Hopefully come in and help out the team with whatever I can.”
I asked Whalen if he saw much of the commentary or creativity last year’s failed play spawned.
“I wasn’t paying too much attention,” he said. “When it’s during the season guys are pretty locked in on what they’re doing inside the building. But I heard more about it later on afterwards.”
Asked if he’d heard anything about the play since being here, Whalen replied, “I haven’t. Kinda was [expecting it].”
The Patriots will be hoping Whalen remains as productive for them on fourth down this year as he was in 2015.
CBS interviewed Patriots coach Bill Belichick and 1960 Heisman winner Joe Bellino from Navy as part of its Army-Navy Game coverage Saturday.
Belichick's father, Steve, was an assistant coach at Navy when Bellino played there, and little Bill, then 7, took it all in. So much so, that 57 years later, Belichick can still diagram the 27 F Trap play that his dad used to drew up in the 1959 season for Bellino.