CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Jim Davis/Globe Staff
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots’ defense found its redemption. The feckless Atlanta Falcons, victims of the largest comeback in Super Bowl history at the hands of the Patriots in February, are still searching for theirs.
The Patriots’ defense emerged from its early-season fog to find its footing. The Atlanta Falcons are still lost in the fog created by the Patriots’ stunning comeback against them in Super Bowl LI. That’s what we learned as the Patriots scored a resounding 23-7 victory in this highly anticipated but ultimately anticlimactic Super Bowl LI rematch on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium that had a supernatural feel.
This Super Bowl LI rematch was an uncomfortable flashback for the Falcons. If you wanted to know what it would look like if the Patriots played an entire game like the final 27 minutes and 29 seconds of Super Bowl LI, you got your answer as the Falcons hit foggy bottom and the Patriots’ defense rose to the occasion.
The Falcons came to Patriot Place to prove a point. Instead, the Patriots’ defense kept them from scoring them, and made its point. The progress they made against Tampa Bay and the New York Jets was given legitimacy. For the first time all year, the Patriots held a quarterback to fewer than 300 yards passing, and a team to fewer than 400 yards of offense. They also held Atlanta off the scoreboard until there was just 4:09 left in the game.
“This was just a reminder, a reminder that when we do things the right way it’s going to be hard to move the ball on us and beat us,” said safety Duron Harmon.
The ride hasn’t been smooth, but at 5-2 the Patriots find themselves in a three-way tie with Pittsburgh and Kansas City for the best record in the AFC. It feels like their best football is still ahead of them. The poor Falcons are still stuck looking in the rearview mirror at what might have been.
There are two sides to the Patriots’ historic comeback from a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI — a great comeback and a great collapse. You don’t get one without the other. The Falcons had to flush their epic and ignominious failure to hold on to the lead. They maintained they’re over it. Sunday night said otherwise.
Atlanta’s immolation in Super Bowl LI will live in infamy and is commemorated and celebrated by the 283 diamonds in the Patriots’ Super Bowl rings and the inscription on the inside that reads in all capital letters “GREATEST COMEBACK EVER.” The Patriots’ Super Bowl bling is the Falcons’ football burden. It looked like it still weighed heavy on their minds and their season.
After putting on a clinic in game mismanagement to blow a 25-point lead to the Patriots back in February, Falcons coach Dan Quinn wasn’t satisfied. He wanted an encore. In the first half in Foxborough, Quinn doubled down on the dumb. A dense fog descended on Gillette Stadium in the second quarter. It enveloped the field completely in the third quarter. That fog might have sprung from Quinn’s brain. At the least it was a meteorological metaphor for the Falcons’ state of mind facing their football demons.
Twice in the first half Quinn went for it on fourth down from just inside Patriots’ territory. The first time Matt Ryan rewarded Quinn’s recklessness disguised as fearlessness by scrambling for 9 yards on fourth and 7 from the Patriots’ 48.
The second time cost the Falcons. Trailing, 10-0, in the second quarter, Atlanta failed to convert on fourth and 6 from the New England 47. The Patriots took over with 1:55 left in the half and promptly found the end zone. Brady found Super Bowl LI hero James White for a 2-yard touchdown pass with 21 seconds left in the half to stake the Patriots to a 17-0 halftime lead.
“We played this game from ahead. That was a switch,” said pleased Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We haven’t done that a lot this year.”
A pumped and jacked Pete Carroll disciple, Quinn was unapologetic about the daring fourth-down decisions – the same stance he took over Atlanta’s situational football failures in Super Bowl LI.
“We were clear on how we wanted to go attack. ... We did take some chances on some fourth-down opps,” said Quinn. “And we felt like that was the right thing to do.”
Quinn must have been a big fan of the Red Sox’ foolhardy base-running under John Farrell.
Playing without high-priced cornerback Stephon Gilmore (concussion) and fellow cornerback Eric Rowe (groin injury), the much-maligned Patriots defense shackled reigning league MVP Ryan and the Atlanta offense. The Falcons were 0-5 on third down in the first half and 2 for 9 for the game. They ran nine times for 30 yards in the first half, which detracted from their 120 yards on 22 carries.
Nothing went right for the lost team of Atlanta.
On the first possession of the second half, Matt Bryant, who had a 37-yard attempt blocked by Cassius Marsh in the first quarter, hooked a 36-yard field goal attempt, banging it off the left upright. The Patriots converted that bit of ineptitude into more points to take a 20-0 lead. It was 23-0 with 9:15 left in the fourth. No one watching felt the Falcons were capable of mounting an incredible comeback of their own.
The Patriots made a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter, aided by some more curious decision-making from the Falcons’ overmatched coaches who weren’t able to keep up with the curriculum at Belichick U. The Patriots stopped the Falcons on third and goal from the 1. Then on fourth and goal from the 1, Atlanta ran a jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel, and Kyle Van Noy was all over it, wrapping up Gabriel for a 5-yard loss.
This was football deja vu. Just like Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady’s parents, Tom Sr. and Galynn, were in attendance to see him play the Falcons. They were out on the field before the game as part of the NFL’s Crucial Catch program to combat cancer. Brady’s mother was treated for breast cancer and her cancer is now in remission.
But there were some differences. The Patriots never led in regulation of Super Bowl LI. They never trailed in this one, jumping out to a 7-0 lead with 12:26 left in the first half on a clever play call (Atlanta fans don’t know what that is).
Brady, lined up in the shotgun, touch passed the snap like Larry Bird to wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who was motioning across the formation for a jet sweep. Cooks did the rest and took the shovel pass to the house for an 11-yard touchdown.
It portended what was to come.
The Patriots finding themselves as Super Bowl contenders, and the Falcons still searching for answers.
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