28-3. The score that precipitated the greatest comeback in NFL history became an albatross meme for the Atlanta Falcons over the last 8 months. As soon as the 2017 regular season schedule was announced with the Patriots game in full view, the chatter about the rematch began. New England, with the help of the Falcons struggling offense, silenced that chatter and any future talk of exercising demons by defeating Atlanta 23-7.
Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn warded off any of the holdover talks quicker than Gandalf the Grey could cast a spell during the week leading up to the game. “I recognize we’re not facing any demons here this week,” explained Quinn sans magic staff. “It’s the 2017 version of us and them. We don’t get to replay that one.”
He was right on all counts. The 2017 version of the Patriots looks horrible. The Patriots (5-2) added the Falcons to a growing list of teams they played just well enough to beat. On that list with Atlanta are the New York Jets (24-17), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (19-14), and Houston Texans (36-33). Unfortunately for every team on that list, the only thing that matters is the outcome. It’s not how, why, or whether deflated balls or video recordings played a part, the only thing that matters is who won.
On Sunday night, the Patriots accepted the win from the Falcons. For everything that went wrong for the Falcons, New England was unable to put the game out of reach. Atlanta just couldn’t get out of its own way. The Falcons lost by 16 there is no debating that fact. After having a field goal blocked, missing a chip shot of a field goal, turning over the ball on downs at the 1, and nullifying their only turnover with a personal foul, losing by that spread was absolutely mystifying. They played about as badly as a team could play and still remain in reach in the fourth quarter -28-3.
“We just weren’t on the same page,” reasoned Julio Jones. Whatever that page is everyone, from the new offensive coordinator to the newest player, needs to get on it.
The game was statistically even everywhere but the scoreboard. Devonta Freeman rushed for 72 yards on 12 carries, three more carries than he had last week in the loss to Miami. He received only one carry on the first drive of the third quarter despite busting a run of 21 yards. Why sway? Especially, when the drive stalled three plays later and Matt Bryant’s 36-yard field goal bounced off the left upright.
The frustration in the third year back’s voice was evident after the game. “I just feel we need to finish and win the game,” said Freeman. “We need to do whatever it takes to win the game. I don’t care what it is.”
Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, Sr. were targeted 13 times and 10 times respectively. Jones finished with 9 receptions and 99 yards while Sanu caught 6 for 65 yards. Sanu was targeted only twice in the second half as Jones began to open up on the Patriots defense.
The one statistical area the Patriots dominated was converting third downs. Atlanta converted only two of their nine third downs and one of three on fourth. “Their ability to convert on the third down and our inability to convert on third down is the real story,” said Quinn. Matt Ryan’s incomplete pass to Sanu on fourth-and-six near midfield gave Tom Brady a short field to work the Pats two-minute drill.
New England capitalized on the field position with a 2-yard touchdown pass to James White and go into the half up 17-0.
Atlanta’s defense gave the offense every chance to get back in the game by holding the Patriots offense to two field goals in the second half.
Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, Kamal Ishmael, and DeVondre Campbell combined for 38 tackles nearly half of the team’s total (77). Even without the interception, the defense played well enough despite being on the field nearly 10 minutes longer than the opposition.
Next Sunday, Atlanta will be in the Meadowlands of New Jersey to face a Jets team that lost to the Patriots on a controversial call by officials. A win there could jumpstart a Falcons mid-season run.
All photos Kevin C. Cox, CORE360 Sports