ATLANTA — They were running on fumes.
The Patriots’ running game suffered back-to-back blows when top tailbacks Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson suffered concussions on the same series against the Panthers in Week 9.
The panic among Patriots fans grew daily as neither was able to practice in the lead-up to last Sunday’s game against the Browns.
The panic among those calling the shots at One Patriot Place? Not so much.
The Patriots rushed for a season-high 184 yards as Josh McDaniels devised another excellent game plan. Long one of the league’s most creative offensive coordinators, McDaniels has been on a roll since he acknowledged his play calls against the Texans in Week 5 weren’t his best.
Stevenson’s ability to clear the league’s concussion protocol and another humongous effort by the humongous humans in the trenches were vital to the success against Cleveland, but it was clear McDaniels had a plan in place even if Stevenson wasn’t available.
McDaniels employed Kendrick Bourne as part of the ground attack, picking his spots to get the ball into the receiver’s hands on three sweeps for 43 yards. McDaniels also called a number of screen passes, which in many ways is an extension of the ground game.
And when Stevenson and Harris were both available vs. the Falcons on Thursday, McDaniels took advantage of his good fortune: He had the two backs split series. While neither scored, they both gobbled up yards on the ground to help propel the Patriots to a 25-0 rout, Stevenson with 69 yards on 12 carries and Harris with 56 yards on 10.
McDaniels, whose name will invariably come up in the coming weeks as teams fall out of the postseason race and franchises scramble to compile coaching targets, is used to adjusting on the fly.
Earlier this season when the club lost critical third-down back James White to a hip injury, McDaniels seamlessly slid Brandon Bolden, a player he helped develop as an undrafted rookie in 2012, into the role.
McDaniels’s ability to adapt, adjust, and exploit is never taken for granted by his boss.
“I think Josh does a great job in really every area,” Bill Belichick said earlier this month. “I don’t think he really has any weaknesses as a coach. He understands what every player is doing on the field on offense and defense. He has a great vision for how to utilize the skills of the players on his side of the ball and how to attack the weaknesses, whether it be personnel weakness or schematic weakness, or how to try to force the opponent into a situation that he’s able to take advantage of.”
The Patriots entered Thursday night’s game against the Falcons averaging 37.5 points during their four-game winning streak as McDaniels has been pulling out all the stops and rookie quarterback Mac Jones pulling all the right strings.
On Thursday, he had Jones throw to nine different receivers, including tight end Jonnu Smith (1 reception, 17 yards), back from a one-game absence, and N’Keal Harry, who had only been targeted eight times in six games this season before he was targeted twice (two receptions, 14 yards) on Thursday.
“He’s an excellent play-caller,” said Belichick of McDaniels. “Timing, setting up sequences of plays. Not necessarily one after the other, but maybe it’s by a situation or building it off something earlier in the game that he knows the opponent is going to be over there talking about. That’s kind of what he wants to do is talk about that because the next play is going to complement that or the next time that situation comes up.
“Josh is creative. He’s a very forward thinker. He’s got great poise during the game, never gets rattled, never loses the situation, never loses track of the situation. He’s always a play or two ahead, and then, if it changes and it doesn’t follow that sequence, he can adapt to it pretty quickly.”
Then Belichick paid McDaniels the highest of compliments, comparing his offensive coordinator to the football coach he respects most.
“It’s kind of like [Nick] Saban when we were in Cleveland,” said Belichick. “Nick knew what every player on the field was doing … and Josh is kind of the same way. He knows what all 11 guys are doing on offense, what their keys are, what their adjustments are, and all that, and he knows, defensively, how the guys are taught to play certain blocks or routes or reads and how to attack them.
“I’ve learned a lot from Josh. I really have. He really excels in every area. I don’t think it’s any one thing; play-calling, fundamentals, strategy. It’s really all of them.”
Once again, the Patriots have mystified Matt Ryan.
With Thursday’s loss, the 36-year-old former Boston College Eagle moved to 0-5 all time against New England.
Besides the infamous postseason loss, of course, Ryan and the Falcons have lost all four of the regular-season meetings since Ryan was drafted in 2008.
The others: 2009 (Week 3 at Gillette), 2013 (Week 4 in Atlanta), and 2017 (Week 7 at Gillette).
It was also just the second time Ryan had been shut out in his career. The other came in 2015 (a 38-0 loss to Cam Newton and the Panthers).
Plenty of turnover
Super Bowl LI will always be a story line when the Patriots and Falcons meet. There’s been a lot of turnover since New England’s 34-28 win in February 2017.
The Patriots have 10 players who played in that Super Bowl that were active Thursday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium: David Andrews, Bolden, Joe Cardona, Dont’a Hightower, Ted Karras, Brandon King, Shaq Mason, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, and Kyle Van Noy. In addition, Jonathan Jones and White are on injured reserve.
The Falcons have only five holdovers: Josh Harris, Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Jake Matthews, and Matt Ryan.
Duron Harmon, who started at safety for the Patriots and was credited by many teammates for sparking the comeback from the 28-3 deficit with a fiery halftime speech, is now with the Falcons.
Wade makes debut
Shaun Wade made his NFL debut after the cornerback was inactive for the first 10 weeks. The former Ohio State standout was acquired from the Ravens in late August.
In addition to Smith returning from a one-week absence due to a shoulder injury, edge rusher Chase Winovich (hamstring) came back after missing four games.
New England’s inactives included quarterback Jarrett Stidham, tailback J.J. Taylor, tight end Devin Asiasi, offensive tackle Yasir Durant, and linebacker Ronnie Perkins.
For the Falcons, receiver/returner/rusher Cordarrelle Patterson (ankle) was ruled out. The other Atlanta inactives: defensive linemen John Cominsky, Marlon Davidson, and Tyeler Davison, and safety Jaylinn Hawkins.
Head to head
The Patriots entered with a record of 8-6 in the regular season against the Falcons and had won five straight in the series after a four-game skid … In their only other appearance at Mercedes-Benz, the Patriots beat the Rams, 13-3, to win Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019 … In addition to Ryan (Boston College), the Falcons have a number of other New England ties, including owner Arthur Blank, who graduated from Babson College … Wide receiver Tajae Sharpe is a UMass alum and guard Chris Lindstrom went to BC.