Sunday night marked the second time in eight months that the Patriots and Falcons squared off in a football game. You probably remember the first matchup.
When rewatching Sunday night’s game, a pain-free 23-7 win by the Patriots, we were curious to see what lessons each team learned from Super Bowl LI and how different or similar the rematch was. Here’s what we saw:
■ Tom Brady worked outside the numbers. You may remember that in the Super Bowl, the Falcons consistently dropped defenders into the middle of the field to take away the short crossing routes to Julian Edelman. It wasn’t until Brady started working the sidelines in the second half that the Patriots were able to move the ball consistently.
The same mostly held true on Sunday night, even though Edelman wasn’t playing. The Falcons were still packing the middle of the field with their speedy linebackers, and Brady responded by throwing half of his passes outside the numbers.
He was 11 of 15 for 136 yards when throwing to the outside, including some of his more impressive throws of the day — a 27-yarder to Rob Gronkowski in double coverage along the sideline, an 18-yard back-shoulder throw to Brandin Cooks, and chain-moving throws of 8 and 9 yards to Cooks and Chris Hogan in the fourth quarter to ice the game.
■ The running backs were the Patriots’ best weapons. Everyone remembers the career night James White had in the Super Bowl, leading the way with 14 catches. Sunday night, all four of the Patriots’ running backs were the focal point of the offense, accounting for 38 touches. Patriots wide receivers had 11 touches, and tight ends had three.
Dion Lewis led with 14 touches, then White with nine, Mike Gillislee with eight, and Rex Burkhead with seven. Hogan and Cooks had four touches each, while Gronk and Danny Amendola each had three.
■ The Patriots weren’t going to let Julio Jones beat them. In the Super Bowl, they bracketed Jones with a cornerback and a safety the entire game, and while he caught four passes for 99 yards, he only had 2 yards after the catch, as the Patriots were in position to make the tackle every time.
Sunday night was similar. The Patriots didn’t match a particular cornerback on Jones, but they made sure that a safety (usually Duron Harmon) was shadowing him over the top.
Jones ended up with nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown, and he had 28 yards after the catch this time thanks to a few catch-and-runs over the middle. But his longest gain of the day was 16 yards, and that came in the first quarter.
■ The Patriots defended the “toss crack” much better. Remember Devonta Freeman taking a toss and running wild through the Patriots’ defense in the Super Bowl? The Pats did a much better job this time in staying in their run lanes and not overpursuing. The Falcons called the toss crack early in the game on third and 4, and Kyle Van Noy stuffed it for minus-3 yards.
Freeman ultimately rushed for 72 yards on six yards per carry, but much of it came in the second half when the Falcons were already trailing big and the Patriots were defending against the big play.
■ The Falcons were doomed by their own aggression. This was a lesson the Falcons didn’t learn from the Super Bowl. We all remember what happened in the fourth quarter in February. Sunday, coach Dan Quinn’s decision to go for it on fourth and 6 from the Patriots’ 47-yard line late in the second quarter doomed his team.
With two minutes left, the smart play would have been to punt the ball away, pin the Patriots deep, go into halftime down 10-0, and get the ball to start the third quarter. Instead, the Falcons gift-wrapped the Patriots excellent field position, and of course the Patriots marched right down the field to make the score 17-0 at halftime and pretty much put the game out of reach.
Other observations after rewatching the tape:
When the Patriots had the ball
■ Brady has been down on himself of late — most notably after the Jets game — and the internet was abuzz last week with comments from respected NFL Films guru Greg Cosell that Brady’s timing is off and that “there have just been some throws — even some completions — where he’s not quite the way he was.”
We saw a few plays again against the Falcons where Brady seemed to be off. There was a near-interception to Desmond Trufant early in the first quarter, and a horrible interception to Robert Alford that was wiped off the board thanks to a roughing-the-passer penalty from Adrian Clayborn. On one play down by the end zone, Brady locked onto Hogan and threw incomplete, and didn’t see an open Gronk right in front of him. De’Vondre Campbell’s kill-shot sack on Brady was also the quarterback’s fault, as he didn’t set the protection correctly, allowing Campbell to sprint in untouched.
But Brady more than made up for it with several dazzling throws. The 27-yarder to Gronk along the sideline in double coverage was an absolute dime, and Brady’s best throw of the night. He had a gorgeous back-shoulder throw to Cooks for 18 yards, and a perfect comeback throw to Cooks for 9 yards on third and 8. And in another deep red zone opportunity, Brady wanted to hit Cooks in the flat, but came off his primary target and found White open on the goal line for the 2-yard score.
Brady isn’t always perfect, but he’s still the NFL’s gold standard.
■ Here are Brady’s final passing numbers, by direction:
Outside the numbers: 11 of 15 for 136 yards.
Between the hashes: 3 of 5 for 61 yards.
Between the numbers and the hashes: 3 of 5 for 18 yards, TD.
Behind the line of scrimmage: 4 of 4 for 34 yards, TD.
■ The Patriots had true balance on Sunday — 32 passing plays and 32 run plays, excluding the kneeldowns at the end. The four running backs averaged 5.06 yards per carry thanks to a great night from the offensive line, particularly the interior.
The offensive line was shaky to start, with two stuffed runs and a couple of penalties on Nate Solder that got the Patriots behind the chains in the first quarter, but they gashed the Falcons up the middle over the final three quarters. David Andrews was especially effective in the run game, combining with Joe Thuney to help spring Lewis for a 25-yard run up the middle.
■ Lewis led the running backs with 26 snaps, while Gillislee only had 13, and got stuffed down on the goal line. The play was designed to go to the right, but there was a big hole up the middle and Gillislee didn’t hit it. Considering how well Lewis is running between the tackles, and how hard Burkhead ran on his six carries (for 31 yards), Gillislee might lose his grip on the short-yardage situation.
■ Gronkowski paved the way for Cooks’s 11-yard touchdown “catch” in the second quarter, but Hogan also made an excellent block to help Cooks get the edge. And Cooks did a great job of staying patient and not over-running his blocker, literally grabbing Gronk’s jersey and using him as his personal battering ram.
■ Gronk, by the way, had the best tackle of the night, absolutely crushing Robert Alford on the interception that was negated by penalty. On the very next play, Gronk had Alford in his sights, and Alford wanted nothing to do with him, allowing Cooks to scoot into the end zone for the touchdown.
■ Marcus Cannon had his second straight “quiet” game and is rounding into the All-Pro form he had last year. Solder is still struggling, as he committed a holding penalty and a false start, and allowed the pressure from Clayborn that freed up Vic Beasley to sack Brady.
When the Falcons had the ball
■ The Patriots’ goal-line stand in the fourth quarter was a great example of how far this defense has come since the communication disasters against the Panthers.
On third and goal from the 1, the Falcons ran a tricky play-action rollout pass for Matt Ryan. But Patrick Chung didn’t bite on the fake and covered Tevin Coleman in the flat. Trey Flowers didn’t bite on the fake, and prevented Ryan from running the bootleg into the end zone. Kyle Van Noy and Adam Butler didn’t bite, and they defended the goal line, taking away the tight end. And Malcolm Butler had tight coverage the whole way on Jones, knocking the ball away.
Tremendous discipline all the way around.
■ And on fourth and 1, the Patriots sniffed out the play the whole way. As soon as Taylor Gabriel went into motion, Van Noy shifted from the middle of the defense to the edge. When Gabriel took the handoff, Flowers and Van Noy were already in his face. The Patriots did their homework.
■ The Patriots’ attention to Julio Jones left the other cornerbacks on an island with their receivers, and Malcolm Butler, Johnson Bademosi, Jonathan Jones, and Chung did an admirable job covering Mohamed Sanu, Gabriel, and Austin Hooper. Ryan was not able to connect with them in 1-on-1 coverage, missing several big throws in the end zone and on fourth down.
■ The Falcons did not convert a third down or fourth down through the air all game, which is mighty impressive. Ryan converted two of them with his feet, and Freeman picked up a third-and-1 with a 4-yard run.
■ Bademosi came to play for the second straight week, doing a great job of playing underneath coverage and proving to be a steady, physical tackler. He also did a great job on a bubble screen to Jones, recognizing the play immediately and fighting through traffic to tackle Jones after 2 yards.
■ Van Noy had an excellent game on run defense, leading the team with seven tackles and two for loss while wrecking a handful of run plays with his speed and instincts. And Alan Branch had a better game in the middle of the defense and seems to have turned a corner after his benching two weeks ago against Tampa Bay.
■ A David Harris sighting! After playing just seven snaps in the first six games, Harris played 19 on Sunday, thanks to injuries to Elandon Roberts and later Dont’a Hightower. Harris had a nice blitz up the middle to force a quick throw by Ryan and a drop by Coleman, and Harris was a stout tackler, providing three nice thumps. He probably won’t have a big role on this defense, but he showed that he can still get after the passer and provide help in short-yardage running situations.
■ The key to the field goal block was Branch, Lawrence Guy, and Malcom Brown occupying four blockers, allowing Cassius Marsh to slip through the line.
■ Stephen Gostkowski was once again the master of the chip-shot kickoff, and the Patriots had great coverage. Of his six kickoffs, one went for a touchback, four drives started short of the 25-yard line, and one drive began at the 28. Three of the Falcons’ drives started inside their 20.