NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It wasn't a matter of any one player or position group being "great."
It was a matter of everyone being consistently good - and that more than added up to a season-opening victory.
The Patriots put together a quality effort Sunday to win for the 29th time on Opening Day, beating the Tennessee Titans, 34-13, at sun-washed LP Field - and while the superlatives may have been few and far between, there were just enough of them and they were backed up with good, solid, professional performances everywhere else on the field. That's a formula that will win a lot of football games.
"Quite a good win for our players," Patriots' coach Bill Belichick said. "Those guys did a really good job. We did a good job of running the ball offensively, did a decent job of stopping the run defensively, made some big plays, turned the ball over and had good field position. So it was a good team win."
That was a simplistic but very accurate way of summing up the Patriots' performance, which was the sum of many parts.
As Belichick said, the Patriots put a pleasantly surprising 162 yards of rushing offense on the board, 125 of them on 21 carries by second-year veteran Stevan Ridley. His performance gave an added dimension to the Patriots' offense, and it came at a good time, helping a slightly battered and bloodied Tom Brady (possible broken nose) to bring order and purpose to the Patriots' passing attack without it having to be the sole means of positive motion.
The Patriots' defense came up with a gem of an effort, successfully stopping the dangerous Chris Johnson (4 yards on 11 carries) and putting the onus of winning the game upon second-year veteran Jake Locker - and then, upon veteran Matt Hasselbeck after Locker was injured trying to make a tackle on fumble recovery that was eventually overturned by replay.
Big plays? How about the two first-round draft picks, Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower? Both had five tackles, and they combined for one of the biggest plays of the day - a second-quarter sack of Locker and strip by Jones, and a recovery of the loose ball and 6-yard return for a touchdown by Hightower. That play put the Patriots up 14-3, and it could be argued for turning-point status.
The other turning-point-worthy play was turned in by veteran defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who dropped Johnson for a 5-yard loss after the Titans marched to a first-and-goal situation at the Patriots' 1 with 10:13 left in the fourth quarter, plenty of time to cut into an 18-point lead. The Titans had to settle for a 23-yard field goal by Rob Bironas and never got back into scoring range the rest of the game.
It's rare when Brady is regarded only as part of a successful effort instead of the germination point of it, but he didn't reach his stride in this game until after he took a shot to the nose on an 8-yard sack early in the second quarter with the Patriots up 7-3. The Hightower score took place while Brady was being patched up on the sidelines, giving him extra time to blow out the cobwebs, and thereafter, he and the offense were in great form.
Brady (23-31, 236 yards, two TD) had completed five of seven passes for 93 yards before the broken nose, but his line tightened its protection, his passing afterward had more purpose and the added benefit of being less predictable as Ridley continued to pile up yardage. On his first series back on the field with a bandaged nose, Brady marched the Patriots 67 yards on 12 plays to a 2-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski at the two-minute warning for a 21-3 halftime lead.
"That was the only good one I really took," Brady said of the from-behind sack by Kamerion Wimbley. "I think the offensive line played really well, and it was a relatively clean game in terms of penalties and turnovers and so forth. It wasn't perfect by any stretch, but it's always fun winning."
Gronkowski and position mate Aaron Hernandez were impressive, as expected. They combined for 12 catches (six for each), 60 and 59 yards respectively and a touchdown apiece. Brandon Lloyd started connecting with Brady on sideline throws and finished with five catches for 69 yards.
The Titans weren't thoroughly discouraged, however, and opened the second half with a scoring drive, Locker shrugging off a would-be sack by Jones and throwing 29 yards to Nate Washington with 10:17 left in the third quarter. Devin McCourty almost sidetracked the Titans' momentum with an interception that was reversed by replay, and the Patriots turned to Ridley for four carries and 35 yards in a six-play, 48-yard drive ending in the running back's 1-yard scoring slant with 1:04 left in the period.
The game took a bizarre turn with 14:12 left to play when a combined hit by Jerod Mayo and Tavon Wilson (who posted his first career interception earlier in the game) prompted Washington to cough up the ball. Patrick Chung picked it up and ran 52 yards to the Titans' 26, where Locker brought him down - and injured his left shoulder in the process.
Moments later, the officials overturned the play by replay as an incomplete pass - not the best way to lose one's starting quarterback.
"It's his non-throwing shoulder," said Titans' coach Mike Munchak, who decided to put Locker on the pine as a precaution. "We just thought at that point that we wanted to be sure he got checked out."
In went Hasselbeck, and the Norfolk native completed six straight passes to get Tennessee to first-and-goal at the Patriots' 1. That's where Wilfork teed off on Johnson, and the drive went south from there.
"You've got to execute and make plays and score touchdowns," Hasselbeck said. "We're just playing one of the best teams in the world and you can't do the things that we did."
Stephen Gostkowski added field goals of 25 and 31 yards to put the icing on the Patriots' first win of the season.