The Atlanta Falcons have struggled holding big leads, and it turns out the team isn't much better at erasing them.
The New England Patriots turned in perhaps their finest all-around performance of the season in a 23-7 victory at a fog-filled Gillette Stadium on Sunday night in the much-anticipated rematch of Super Bowl LI.
With his mom, Galynn, on hand as part of the NFL's Crucial Catch campaign honoring cancer survivors, Tom Brady completed 21 of 29 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
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It may have been a run-of-the-mill game by Brady standards, but even without the gaudy video game numbers he put up when the Patriots last faced the Falcons in February, New England was A-OK thanks to a resounding performance from its 32nd-ranked defense.
“We had a good week of preparation and knew they [the Falcons] were going to come in here and try to take a win so we just had to match the intensity,” cornerback Malcolm Butler said after the game.
Reigning league MVP Matt Ryan didn't help his cause by overthrowing receivers left and right, but when there were big plays to be made, the Patriots stepped up on more occasions than one.
On a must-score third-and-goal situation from the 1-yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Ryan zeroed in on his favorite receiver, Julio Jones, in the corner of the end zone. Malcolm Butler stayed with him step for step and came away with an emphatic pass break-up, forcing the Falcons into a fourth-and-goal situation.
Trailing 20-0, Atlanta decided to go for the touchdown. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian curiously took the ball out of Ryan's hands and opted for a stretch run to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy sent Gabriel backwards five yards, denying the Falcons points once again.
Van Noy finished tied in the team lead in tackles, with seven, for the second week in a row. Johnson Bademosi, who started in place of Gilmore, also had seven tackles, as did Patrick Chung.
Atlanta was an abysmal 2 for 9 on third downs and 1 for 3 on fourth downs. Ryan threw for 233 yards – many of which came in garbage time – and completed 23 of his 33 passes. In the process, Ryan became the first quarterback to face the Patriots this season and fail to top 300 yards through the air, even without Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe active for New England in the defensive backfield.
“We’re excited because we finally see our hard work come into show,” safety Duron Harmon said. “It’s not perfect; we still left some plays out there. We still did some things that we need to learn from. I just feel like the energy that we played with, the excitement, how fast and physical we played kind of covered up a lot of the mistakes that we made. We just got to build on that.”
The other erstwhile fourth-down conversion attempt came near the end of the second quarter, in which the Falcons were faced with a fourth-and-6 from the New England 47 with 1:55 to go. Down 10-0 at the time, but with a chance to pin the Patriots deep on a punt, Ryan overthrew Mohamed Sanu for a turnover on downs.
Sure enough, seven plays later, New England went up 17-0 on a James White 2-yard touchdown reception.
“That just showed you how big they thought this game was, too,” Harmon said of the Falcons going for it on fourth down three times in the game. “They wanted to win and keep their offense out there because they felt like the offense gave them a good chance to win. It’s a testament to what we did.”
Brandin Cooks had the other touchdown reception from Brady on a shovel pass from 11 yards out to open the game's scoring.
Atlanta was positioned to score the first points of the game when Matt Bryant lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter. But Cassius Marsh, acquired for his experience on special teams, broke through the left side of the offensive line and blocked Bryant's attempt. The special teams play drew the approval of Bill Belichick, who showed more emotion than usual with an emphatic fist bump.
Bryant also shanked a 36-yard field goal attempt on the Falcons' opening drive of the second half.
In contrast, Stephen Gostkowski was a perfect 3 for 3 on field goals, all of his makes coming from 38 yards and in.
As a team, the Patriots rushed for a season-high 162 yards, surpassing the Week 1 total of 124 against the Kansas City Chiefs. New England still does not have an individual 100-yard rusher, but both Dion Lewis (13 carries, 76 yards) and Rex Burkhead (six carries, 31 yards) averaged over 5.0 yards per carry. Lewis' 76 yards were a season-high by a singular Patriots runner, and Burkhead looked good in spot duty in his first game since Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints.
“Everybody’s running hard and doing whatever it takes to win,” Lewis said. “I mean, you’ve just got to compete. The best thing you can do is compete – just trying to prove that you deserve to be out there.”
Until Atlanta scored with 4:09 to go in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Jones, the Patriots had been on a 54-0 run against the Falcons dating back to the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.
“They made so many big plays,” Brady said of the defense’s performance. “That was really a night of big plays for them.”
The Los Angeles Chargers, which have won three in a row following an 0-4 start, come to Foxboro next Sunday for a 1 p.m. kickoff.