The Patriots finally looked like the team we expected to see this season in what was billed as a Super Bowl rematch despite both teams saying that they’ve moved on to 2017. That is only true for one team, the Patriots have moved on.The Falcons are still stuck in the awful nightmare of the 4th quarter and overtime and are in a fog that somehow crept into Foxboro/Fogboro that is a perfect metaphor for their season so far.
But the Patriots hadn’t played a 60-minute game yet either. The defense was wide open to ridicule and beat up and the offense, despite the high output, hadn’t put a full game together. Well, if this is the product that the Patriots are going to put out the rest of the season, then buckle in for another long ride folks.
The Patriots were cool and in control, which contrasted sharply with the deer-in-the-headlights panic shown by Atlanta and coach Dan Quinn who went for a fourth and long in the first quarter and then stupidly went for a 4th and 6 at midfield with two minutes to go in the half, down only 10-0 and with Atlanta getting the ball at the kickoff in the 3rd quarter.
They failed and Tom Brady put a dagger into them, easily going the 53-yards putting the Patriots up 17-0 and this one was essentially over.
So, we’ll start with the offense and the players can come forward to pick up their grade sheets.
Tom Brady didn’t have eye-popping numbers (21 of 29, 249 yards 2 TDs), on Sunday night but he, like the rest of the team was in command all the way. Brady sees the field better than anyone and when he saw Dontari Poe taking his sweet time getting off the field, he quickly snapped the ball for an easy first and five. He made a beauty of a deep sideline throw to Gronkowski just as he went out of bounds. His throw to Chris Hogan on 3rd and 16 was a laser that protected his WR from getting popped, and those who talk about diminishing arm strength should watch that one again. Ditto for the nice 2-yard TD pass to James White. White was Brady’s third option on the play. Was there any doubt after Quinn panicked on the fourth down call that the Brady was going to put points on the board just before halftime? He loves those moments.
Running Backs: A
The running back depth was on full display on Sunday night. Atlanta may arguably have the best 1-2 combination in the league, but the Patriots five are second to none when it comes to versatility, depth, and dependability.
Dion Lewis (remember not long ago he was the subject of trade talk?) was once again the featured back in the offense, carrying 13 times for 76 yards, including a beauty of a 25-yard burst up the middle. Rex Burkhead returned from his rib injury since Week 2 and ran very well. Mike Gillislee also ran hard and was effective. He did get stuffed on the goalline but that wasn’t a good play call there and he had no chance of scoring there. James White? Think Atlanta had nasty flashbacks to February just before the half? White was the feature back for that sequence that ended with him scoring from 2-yards out. He had just five receptions but on just five targets. James Develin was his normal road grader self in the blocking game. The backs gained 162 yards rushing…nuff said.
Wide Receivers: B
Atlanta played this one a little differently, they sat back in two-deep zones trying to take away the deep ball, (perhaps seeing Brandin Cooks plenty before?), so the opportunities for the deep ball were limited. But the wide receivers had good productive games. Hogan (4 catches 71 yards), ran a perfect route on the 3rd and 16 and corralled the ball in for a huge first down. Cooks (4 catches, 65 yards, 1 TD), took a shovel pass (stolen from the Chiefs) and rode Rob Gronkowski’s shirttail into the end zone for an easy touchdown. Ole, ole Robert Alford, the tape doesn’t lie. Danny Amendola had an uncharacteristic drop on an otherwise quiet night.
Tight Ends: B-
Rob Gronkowski didn’t have his normal stellar game but was good enough. He got flagged for an offensive pass interference that wiped out a 39-yard pass from Brady and it seems like the officials are always looking for that one. So many others consistently get away with it…however, it is what it is. He made a really nice sideline catch from Brady where #12 dropped it perfectly in the bucket. His block on Cooks’ TD will be an internet meme for years to come. Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister were invisible other than the blocks each missed which resulted in lost yardage. Hollister’s was down inside the five-yard line…not good.
Offensive Line: A
The offensive line has been catching a lot of flak for the hits that Brady has been taking this year and with good reason. But on Sunday night, they had their best game of the season…by far. They gave up a couple of sacks but overall the protection while not perfect was plenty good enough.
But where the unit made their grade was in the running game. The Patriots gashed Atlanta for 162 yards and the holes were there to see on television. With the Falcons in a two-deep safety zone, they dared New England to run and got smashed in the mouth. What was especially impressive is, when killing the clock at the end of the game, the Falcons knew they were going to run and they still ate them up. They owned the point of attack all game long
Defensive Line: B
The Patriots defensive line was good but not great in this one. They did a good job of defending the run in the first half but were victimized by Atlanta a bit in the third and fourth quarters as Devonta Freeman was impressive. But when they had to be, they buckled down. The goal-line stand was very impressive. On the fourth down stop, Trey Flowers destroyed the tight end which forced Taylor Gabriel back where Kyle Van Noy shot in and stuffed him for a five-yard loss. Complimentary football as Bill Belichick would say.
Flowers was solid in the pass rush. Wise flashed a bit and Adam Butler got his first NFL sack. Cassius Marsh was a little bit out of control on two occasions where he rushed Matt Ryan with his hair on fire and lost containment. Alan Branch in a limited role was his normal immovable self.
Kyle Van Noy made several splash plays including his goal-line stop and was flying all over the field. He’s at his best playing downhill and/or rushing the passer. He’s not great in coverage but he had a very productive game. Dont’a Hightower was mostly quiet on the edge and got hurt later in the game. There was a David Harris sighting in Foxboro! Yes, the veteran played in his most snaps this season, appearing in their base and goal line formations and looked like his old self, (I think I was the only one who didn’t believe he looked slow this summer). He made a bone-jarring hit on Freeman at the goal line. Was good to see him out there and contributing.
With Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore out this week, the Patriots were missing two of their top three corners. Facing the potent Atlanta offense it was no surprise that the Patriots would double Julio Jones with safety help over the top. Jones had 9 catches for 99 yards and a garbage-time touchdown but was truly a non-factor in the game. The secondary play was stellar (when was the last time we said that?) throughout in this one.
Malcolm Butler was all over the field and easily had his best game of the season. He flew up and destroyed Tevin Coleman on a running play and stuffed a screen pass for a loss. Even the touchdown he was beaten for, he made a good play and was in the position to pick off Ryan but Jones stole the ball right out of his hands on a great play.
Johnson Bademosi will no longer be referred to as a special teams player only. For the past two weeks, he’s shown that he can play. The big corner, scrapped and competed all game. He had a nice breakup on a pass to Jones. And Jonathan Jones broke up a pass in the end zone for Sanu.
Devin McCourty was the deep centerfielder with Duron Harmon for much of this game and they were solid. Excellent effort and outstanding results for this group.
Special Teams: A-
Cassius Marsh (he of the hair on fire type) blocked a field goal on a tremendous play and got an in-game high five from Belichick which is a rarity. Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 3-3 on his field goals, and his kickoffs were as always excellent. The coverage units were on point and Danny Amendola with his sure hands recovered an onside kick.
The only downer was the not-so-smart penalty on Pat Chung for holding when he didn’t have to which wiped out an excellent field position situation.
Bill Belichick never blinks or loses sight of what is going on around him. In a big game for both teams he had his unit in control and they played like the Super Bowl champions that they are for 60 minutes. Contrast that to the panicky, way Dan Quinn approached this one. And the coach’s demeanor bleeds over to the players’ performances. Atlanta doesn’t faintly resemble that cocky, dominant team that rolled over Green Bay and stuffed New England for three quarters in the Super Bowl crew. That, boys and girls, is superior coaching.
The game plan was outstanding and executed to a tee. Josh McDaniels opted for a smash mouth ball control offense which kept Atlanta’s offense frustrated and on the sidelines. Point in fact, down three scores, Atlanta had three, just three second-half possessions. That is, to quote Charlie Sheen, “winning.”
Matt Patricia’s defense played by far their best game of the year, the much-maligned secondary, missing some key players was stellar and held Atlanta scoreless for 56 minutes. A tremendous performance by the coaching staff this week.