Five takeaways from the Patriots’ best win of the season, a 23-7 triumph over the Falcons in a Super Bowl LI rematch:
A TOTAL TEAM EFFORT
When Bill Belichick stepped to the podium afterward, he praised everybody on his team – from the guys in uniform, to the guys who weren’t, to the practice squad players who aren’t even on the active roster. The coach was happy with a start-to-finish performance that featured contributions from all three phases, from Cassius Marsh’s blocked field goal, to Tom Brady’s impressively efficient offense, to a defense that didn’t crack until nearly 56 minutes had been played.
“Really, really good job by our football team tonight,” Belichick said. “I’m proud of what they did.”
What they did was quiet some of the doubts that had developed over the first six weeks of the campaign, when the offense posted more yards than any other team, while scoring the fifth-most points, but had been forced to fight through a historically bad defense. Sunday night, however, the Patriots not only kept the opposing quarterback to fewer than 300 yards for the first time this season, they showed marked improvement across the board.
Entering as the league’s fourth-worst scoring defense, the Pats trimmed nearly 20 points off their season average and yielded just a single touchdown. Ranked 25th on third down, the Patriots let the Falcons convert just two of nine tries. And after allowing 28 passing plays of at least 20 yards over the first six contests, they gave up only one on Sunday, and that came midway through the fourth quarter.
Atlanta scored only one touchdown on four trips to the red zone, and even that required superstar receiver Julio Jones to use his height to rip the ball from the hands of a well-positioned Malcolm Butler. The Patriots were without injured cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, as well as linebacker Elandon Roberts, but the defensive communication appeared to be as good as it has been all year, with safety Devin McCourty saying that, “Play in, play out, 11 guys were on the same page,” as the club looked a lot more like the Patriots fans have become accustomed to seeing.
“I thought we executed our gameplan perfectly tonight,” McCourty said. “Our coaches have been on us about making a team make a play to beat us. Julio Jones’ catch in the end zone, Sanu’s catch on the one-yard line, those are great catches. I thought we competed and made them earn every yard. We made enough plays. We played really well on third down.”
VAN NOY CONTINUES TO DELIVER
When the Patriots divulged that linebacker Kyle Van Noy had received a two-year contract extension last month, the news was met with some questions. Just days earlier his struggles had seemed to contribute to the Patriots’ problems against the Chiefs, and at that point it might have been hard to see him as a centerpiece of a competitive defense.
That’s no longer so difficult to do. Sunday night marked Van Noy’s fourth straight game with seven tackles, two of those resulting in losses, and one of those blowing up Tyler Gabriel’s end-around attempt with the Falcons trying some trickery on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Preserving what was then a 20-0 advantage, that play effectively put an end to Atlanta’s hopes of a comeback, and highlighted Van Noy’s emergence as a playmaker at the heart of the defense. He has taken over a leadership role, taking some of the burden off Dont’a Hightower, and also helping the Pats survive the absence of the oft-injured Hightower, who missed time in Sunday’s second half after hurting his shoulder.
Since that Chiefs game he hasn’t been made to look like a liability in coverage, and he’s already set a career high with 3.5 sacks. Put it together and, at age 26, Van Noy is starting to not only look worthy of being the Patriots’ second highest-paid linebacker, but a piece to build around moving forward.
The first time, there was something of an admirable I’ll-show-you spirit to the decision, as though Dan Quinn heard all the criticism of the Falcons’ overaggressive play calling in the late stages of Super Bowl XLI, and had been waiting for his chance to show that he’d take opt for the fearless route again if given the chance. It paid off, too, when his choice to attempt to convert a fourth and 7 near midfield was rewarded by Matt Ryan moving the chains with a scramble around the right edge.
The second time, though, wasn’t nearly so admirable. In fact, it was silly. As silly as dropping your quarterback back to pass when three kneeldowns would’ve effectively cinched a championship.
The latter occasion came at the two-minute warning, when Atlanta faced a fourth and 6 from New England’s 47. Logistically it wasn’t a whole lot different than the earlier decision, and that had worked out well for the Falcons – but Quinn was foolish to not consider the way the circumstances had changed by that point.
The first time the Falcons went for it, the game was scoreless; the second time they were trailing 10-0. After their first 11 offensive snaps had netted 23 yards for the Patriots, New England had gone 74 yards for a touchdown and put together a 14-play drive for a field goal on the two series that preceded Quinn’s second decision. Brady and the Pats had found their rhythm. They were clicking.
Yet rather than forcing that offense to go the length of the field after a punt, Quinn’s team tried to connect on a throw to Mohamed Sanu, and when that didn’t work it left the Patriots with a short field, three timeouts, and a chance to go up by three scores headed into halftime. They did just that with a Brady connection to James White, so Atlanta went to intermission trailing 17-0 – and with yet more regret for its coach to chew on.
RUNNING BACKS WERE IMMENSE
Sunday night may have marked the first time this season that New England had its entire stable of running backs operating at some semblance of full strength – and through the fog came a glimpse of how potent that group could be.
Led by Dion Lewis’s 76 yards on 13 carries, the four backs combined to pick up 157 yards on 31 hauls, and led aerially by White’s five catches for 28 yards and a score, the quartet of Lewis, White, Mike Gillislee, and Rex Burkhead combined for 202 yards from scrimmage while handling the ball on 38 of the Patriots 67 plays. Playing from ahead for most of the night afforded New England a chance to better balance the offense between the run and the pass, but the Patriots’ efficiency on the crowd was more a contributor to that advantage than a byproduct of it against a Falcons unit that came in allowing an average of 102 rushing yards per game, and 11th in run defense overall.
I thought we did a great job staying balanced tonight,” Brady said. “We ran the ball really well, really efficiently. Guys ran hard, and we needed it.”
STANDINGS LOOKING BETTER
By virtue of their opening night defeat, they’d lose a tiebreaker to Kansas City – but suddenly, in spite of their struggles, the Patriots head toward the midpoint of the season tied for the best record in the AFC.
At 5-2, they’re matched by both the Chiefs and Steelers (New England visits Pittsburgh on Dec. 17) and even in terms of scoring differential there’s not a great disparity between the three teams. KC is a plus-46, Pittsburgh plus-31, and New England now plus-29. Across the NFL, only Philadelphia (5-1), which plays Mondaynight, has fewer losses than the Pats.
What’s more surprising than New England being in strong contention for a top-two seed in the conference, though, is that their lead in the AFC East is just half a game. After dramatic Sunday wins, both the Bills and Dolphins sit at 4-2, and if those teams can continue to keep pace it could make for a crazy stretch run. The Patriots don’t play either of those division rivals until after Thanksgiving, but then face Miami and Buffalo four times in a five-game period between Nov. 26 and Dec. 24.