FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — Their roster continues to be a revolving door because of injuries, but the New England Patriots are squarely in the driver’s seat in their quest to have the top seed in the AFC.
“We’re learning as we go. We’ve got new players coming in every week,” quarterback Tom Brady said after his two touchdown passes helped the Patriots to a 33-16 victory over the lowly Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
“To be 12-2 is a good record. I know it’s not perfect, certainly a lot of things we can do better, but it’s good to be 12-2.”
The Patriots finished a 7-1 home season and are assured of a first-round bye in the playoffs. They end the regular season at the New York Jets next Sunday and at Miami on Jan. 3, and wins in both would wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
New England had a chance to clinch a first-round bye depending what happened to the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals later Sunday.
But the bodies continue to fall.
Sunday, wide receiver Danny Amendola and linebacker Dont’a Hightower both left with the left knee injuries (Hightower having just returned from miss two games with an injury to that knee). Safety Patrick Chung (hip) and receiver Brandon LaFell (leg) also left with injuries.
The team is waiting for slot receiver Julian Edelman to make it back from his broken foot (he’s close) and safety Devin McCourty and tight end Scott Chandler were also missing Sunday. Running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount are among those lost for the season.
The Patriots added rookie running back Joey Iosefa from the practice squad later in the week and he led the team with 14 carries and 51 yards on Sunday — and this next man up thing continues to work.
It helped that they were playing the Titans (3-11).
Defensive end Akiem Hicks recovered a fumble and scored New England’s first non-offensive touchdown of the season and Stephen Gostkowski kicked four field goals as the Patriots reached 12 wins for the 10th time (sixth straight year), tying them with the Denver Broncos for third on the NFL’s all-time 1ist.
Brady, saying he felt “fine” after being sick Friday and questionable for the game, hit tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back James White (seven catches, 71 yards and a 70-yarder called back) with his 34th and 35th touchdown passes of the season — his fourth 35-touchdown season, tying him with Peyton Manning for the all-time record.
Brady, who finished 23 of 35 for 267 yards, said White “has gained a lot of trust from everybody,” since sliding into the third-down back role after Lewis went down. White scored on a 30-yard catch and run.
Tennessee rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, whose fumble off a sack by defensive end Chandler Jones gave the Patriots their third touchdown, left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury. He could have returned but was held out.
Zach Mettenberger replaced Mariota and hit tight end Delanie Walker with two touchdown passes, Walker’s fifth and sixth touchdown catches of the season. Walker broke the Titans’ franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end (935 yards) and catches by a tight end (76 catches).
Mettenberger was 20 of 28 for 242 yards and two interceptions.
“It’s tough but Mett came in and did a great job,” said running back David Cobb. “He made some great throws, but you have to protect him. No matter who is back there you have to protect them.”
Jones added a sack in the third quarter, giving him a career-high 12.5 for the season, tied for third place on the team’s all-time list. The Patriots had five sacks in the game.
Gronkowski dedicated the game to his friend, Dana Parenteau, who died late in the week. Gronkowski, who missed practice on Friday because of the death, had five catches for 54 yards. “I know he was up there watching,” Gronkowski said.
New England wide receiver Keshawn Martin ripped off a 70-yard kick return and was guilty of a pass interference call that wiped out a 70-yard catch and run by White in the fourth quarter.
Late in the fourth quarter, linebacker Jamie Collins ran 51 yards with a deflected interception.
NOTES: New England rookie RB Joey Isoefa was summoned from the Patriots practice squad to be the third running back and showed power on a 15-yard run that left CB Coty Sensabaugh behind. His NFL debut produced 51 yards on 14 carries. “He’s a grinder — hard-working kid,” said coach Bill Belichick. … The Titans have allowed 102 points in their last three games. … New England C Bryan Stork was inactive. “Coaching decision,” said Belichick. … WR Damaris Johnson, claimed off waivers by the Titans from New England earlier in the week, was inactive. … New England RB Montee Ball, picked up earlier in the week, remained on the practice squad. … The end of the game meant the start of preparing Gillette Stadium for the NHL’s Winter Classic on Jan. 1