Three things we learned in the Patriots' 23-7 victory over the Falcons Sunday night at Gillette Stadium:
1. Grounded. Well, anyone who saw the Atlanta Falcons more as an NFL Flavor of the Month rather than an emerging, annual threat to come out of the NFC seem to be on the warmer side. Just consider that since leading the Patriots 28-3 in Super Bowl LI back in February, New England has managed to outscore Matt Ryan’s team by a score of 54-0 before the Falcons quarterback found Julio Jones for the receiver’s first touchdown of the season with 4:09 left in the game. Nevertheless, the Falcons are a shell of the team that blew a 25-point lead to the Patriots almost nine months ago. Some of that has to do with the switch from offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who has taken over for Kyle Shanahan, now head coach in San Francisco, without any instant success. That was notable on Sunday, when the team that led the NFL with 33.8 points per game a year ago, managed to suffer through its second-straight scoreless half, extending a streak that began during a loss to the Miami Dolphins last week, when the Falcons blew a 17-0 halftime lead. Kicker Matt Bryant missed a pair of field goals (one blocked), Taylor Gabriel failed to convert a fourth-and-goal inches from a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and Ryan couldn’t get anything started in the fog of Foxboro. Atlanta is now 3-3 and clearly, as much as one could see through Sunday night’s weather, looks like a team going nowhere one year after its greatest failure.
2. A fog of his own. If some well-knowing meteorologist tried explaining you the theories behind how the fog started to envelop Gillette Stadium Sunday night, feel free to laugh off the logic with the conclusion that it originated somewhere on the Atlanta sideline. That’s where Falcons head coach Dan Quinn quickly proved in the first half that he’s now officially a card-carrying member in the “Ruined by Bill Belichick” club, transparently showing twice in the first half how damaged his psyche is after blowing a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. Oh, he got lucky going for it the first time on fourth-and-seven at the New England 48-yard-line. Ryan ended up scrambling for nine yards, keeping a drive alive that would end when Cassius March would block Bryant’s first field goal attempt. But the second time was something else entirely. Down 10-0, Quinn and Sarkisian decided to go for it on fourth-and-five at midfield once again, this despite not watching their offense find any sort of groove whatsoever against a New England defense that came into the game pretty much last in everything. Seven plays later the Patriots added another touchdown (James White on the receiving end of a Tom Brady pass, White’s first score since the Super Bowl), and essentially put the game out of reach for Atlanta. The denser fog was indeed in Quinn’s head on this eerie-looking evening in Foxboro.
3. Credit when due. How much credit can you give the much-maligned Patriots defense, seeing as its highest grade of the season came up against a dysfunctional Atlanta Falcons team? Even coming off the victory against the Jets last weekend, when the Falcons ended up losing to the Dolphins, there still lingered a fear of this Falcons offense, particularly against this Patriots secondary, one that went without inactive cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. Never mind the fact that Atlanta has now lost to the Patriots, Bills, and Dolphins in the suddenly powerhouse AFC East, this was still an opponent that played a test on the emergence of Matt Patricia’s defensive woes being rectified. Malcolm Butler had his best game of the season, special teams were well-rounded, much to Bill Belichick’s delight, and Kyle Van Not making the huge stop at fourth-and-goal in the fourth quarter. It may not exactly be breath easy time, but at least this time the Pats D gave some sense that it might just be fine after all.