Charles Krupa
December 21, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Chandler Jones knocked the ball out of Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota's hand, and Akiem Hicks saw it bouncing around in front of him. He tried to grab it but just wound up knocking it farther away.

Finally, the 6-foot-5, 324-pound Hicks fell on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown on a day that the defense helped the New England Patriots beat Tennessee 33-16 Sunday and clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs.

''Chandler had that great play and I was just trying to finish it for us,'' Hicks said. ''You're a bigger guy like, `OK, I've got to make sure I'm with it.' ... That's just a testament to our defense and how we've been trying to bring pressure all year.''

Defensive lineman Alan Branch said the rest of the Patriots enjoyed watching Hicks struggle to corral the football.

''When a big guy gets a touchdown, no matter what, it's going to be funny because it doesn't look normal and it isn't regular,'' Branch said. ''The big fella got in there and he had to double-catch it for a touchdown, but we got the seven points and I was proud of the big fella.''

Tom Brady threw for two touchdowns to help the Patriots (12-2) hold onto the top spot in the AFC, and the defense knocked 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. ''I don't expect to be out for the rest of the year.''

The Patriots had already clinched a playoff berth, and they were assured of a first-round bye when Denver lost to Pittsburgh later on Sunday. New England could clinch home-field throughout the playoffs with one more win, either next week at the Jets or the final weekend at Miami.

Brady completed 23 of 35 passes for 267 yards. 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.

Rob Gronkowski caught a 5-yard touchdown pass.

Here are some other things we learned from Sunday's game:

INJURY REPORT: 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.''

THWARTED COMEBACKS: Zach Mettenberger replaced Mariota 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 the 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 uprights 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.

DROP THE PUCK: After the game, the goalposts were taken down and the stadium crew began preparing for the NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day, when Boston will play Montreal. The Patriots will finish the season with back-to-back road games to give the crews a chance to turn Gillette Stadium into an outdoor hockey rink.

The NHL game will be preceded by a matchup of Bruins and Canadiens alumni the day before.

It will be the second Winter Classic hosted by the Bruins. They played the Philadelphia Flyers at Fenway Park in 2010.

DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTIONS: Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins intercepted Mettenberger and ran it back 51 yards to set up the clinching field goal. It was his first interception this season and the third of his career. He also sacked Mariota in the second quarter and knocked the No. 2 overall draft pick from the game.

''Jamie Collins is the best athlete I ever saw,'' Hicks said. ''That's all I have to say. It's awesome.''

Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler also intercepted Mettenberger, picking one off in the end zone to stall a Titans' drive in the fourth quarter. Butler had another interception negated by a Patriots penalty.

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