By Nick Shook
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The New England Patriots jumped out to a 17-0 lead and cruised from there, easily handling a mistake-prone Atlanta Falcons team in a 23-7 win on Sunday night. Here’s what we learned:
1. The Super Bowl rehashing drove the pregame and the early content, but by halftime, it was pretty clear these two teams were not the same ones who met in Houston last February. New England dominated the Falcons in the first half on offense and defense, and rode that lead to the end of regulation for an emphatic win on a national stage.
2. More of what we expect from the Patriots‘ offense. Dion Lewis led all running backs in snaps with 23, and right behind him were Rex Burkhead (22) and James White (21), with the latter also accounting for a receiving touchdown by shaking linebaker Deion Jones on a deftly run angled route out of the backfield and into the end zone. Brandin Cooks caught four of his five targets for 65 yards and a touchdown, and Rob Gronkowski caught three passes for 51 yards. Tom Brady capped another efficient night that didn’t quite produce fireworks (it’s a good thing, because with the fog that rolled in, visibility was already low), but did more than enough to cruise past Atlanta. His line was clean — 21-of-29 passing, 249 yards, two touchdowns — as was his play as New England improved to 5-2.
3. Atlanta looks nothing like the offense it was in 2016, and it’s starting to reflect poorly on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. No sequence of Falconsplays was uglier Sunday night than when the Falcons found themselves inside the Patriots‘ 1 with two downs to score and promptly threw an incomplete pass and attempted to run an end around to Taylor Gabriel flush to the line of scrimmage, resulting in a big loss and turnover on downs. With two downs to gain all of 12 inches, there’s simply no reason to get cute, and it cost the Falcons their last legitimate chance to get back into the contest.
4. At first, it looked like a gutsy call, perhaps a message to send to his team that he believed in them enough to go for it on fourth down. But by the second fourth-down conversion attempt, it just seemed desperate from Dan Quinn. And after Atlanta went into halftime down 17-0, who could really blame him? The Falcons‘ offense found ways to move the ball between the 20s, but was a disaster once in the red zone, getting overly complicated with play calling and failing to execute, including two missed field goals from usually reliable veteran Matt Bryant. It was almost as if Quinn didn’t believe his team could find itself in a similar position, which was difficult to comprehend with the ball near midfield on the first go-for-it call. Those decisions are usually reserved for when a team is knocking on the door of the end zone. From the first blocked field goal to the failure on the 1-yard line, it was evident that for the third straight week, it wasn’t the Falcons‘ night.
5. New England has to be happy with how its defense played tonight after the unit was a collective disaster earlier in the season. The Patriots limited the Falcons to just 22 percent (2 of 9) in third-down efficiency and kept Julio Jones out of the game until they had built a 17-0 lead. The defense stood firm, breaking up an attempt to throw a fade to Jones in the third quarter and denied Gabriel’s end around run, and carried a shutout deep into the fourth, despite having to play coverage in a thick fog.
“I thought we competed and made them earn every yard,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said.
6. The narrative stemming from this game will be about how the Patriots are back to where everyone thought they’d be, but while New England played a solid game and should be proud of its victory, this wasn’t a massive win by any means. The bigger storyline that should come out of this game is what has happened to Atlanta? The Falcons‘ defense, which featured the league’s leader in sacks last season and looked menacing in the first three weeks has since lost its strength and didn’t muster all that much of a fight against the Patriots. That only piles on top of whatever has gone wrong with the team’s offense — this writer thinks someone might be outcoaching himself while also failing to use all of his personnel — to make what was once a promising season now a concerning one at 3-3.
7. It was legitimately difficult to decipher what was going on in this game, thanks to some unexpected and thick fog. The beautiful development that stemmed from this was a fourth quarter broadcast almost exclusively from the wire camera angle, which was perhaps the best development from Sunday Night Football this season. The change allowed viewers to see plays unfold from the view of the offensive players, which is usually reserved for replays and game film (and is much more useful than the broadcast angle), and drew almost exclusively rave reviews from those watching on Twitter. It was truly magnificent in a game that was very far from that.