FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was late in the first quarter when one play signified this game was going to be different from the last time the Patriots and Falcons met, in Super Bowl LI. And in the process, it may have helped change the course of this season for New England.
As Falcons running back Tevin Coleman went left, a hole parted for a millisecond, only to be closed by Pats cornerback Malcolm Butler, who came crashing in, hitting Coleman square in the lower body with both shoulders. Coleman flew through the air, twisting like helicopter blades. It was a gorgeous, nasty tackle, and the tone was set.
Later, wide receiver Brandin Cooks scored by following behind 265-pound tight end Rob Gronkowski, trailing him like a puppy follows its mother. As Gronk cleared a path, Falcons defenders literally ran out of the way, allowing Cooks to score.
Plays like this were sprinkled throughout the contest. The New England defense, filled with heroes last year, and villains this season, is back to being the Justice League again.
The physical nature of the game, won by the Patriots, 23-7, didn't just signify how this Super Bowl rematch story would play out. It was a signal that the Patriots are back.
You could argue they never left, sure, but that wouldn't be quite accurate. The Patriots defense has been a colander trying to stop a high tide all season. It went from the No. 1 scoring defense in football last year to a Cleveland Browns level of ineptitude. Until now.
The Patriots put an old-school beatdown on the Falcons on Sunday night, and their defense, and its physicality, is why.
When the Patriots are nasty, good things happen to them, and this defense was "it's Janet, Miss Jackson if you're nasty."
The Super Bowl rematch wasn't so much a sexy matchup as it was a status check of the two teams involved in the wildest game in Super Bowl history. Just in case you were off-world at the time, the Falcons led 28-3 and lost. That's it. That's all the recap you need.
Since then—and this is why this game was so important—both teams have been searching to find their way. The Falcons offense, the heartbeat of their team, hasn't been the formidable presence it was last year. Meanwhile, the Patriots defense, under future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick, has been among the worst in football.
Entering the week, both teams said the Super Bowl was irrelevant. That, of course, was a lie. The Falcons wanted to at least get a tiny bit of revenge, and the Patriots wanted to show their win was no fluke.
Want proof this game was different for Atlanta than any other? The Falcons twice went for it on fourth down in the first half. The first half.
As a fog settled in over Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, though, things became more clear for New England and more apparent for the Falcons. And by the end, the Patriots seemed to have straightened out their defensive woes and elevated themselves back to, or near, the top of the sport, and the Falcons were still falling apart, having lost three straight.
The Falcons look dramatically different from last year. They are lost offensively, and Matt Ryan looks like Matt Barkley. He constantly overthrew receivers Sunday, and unlike last season, those receivers are no longer running wide open. Every throw is contested.
In a season that didn't see Julio Jones score his first touchdown until Atlanta's sixth game, it's only a matter of time before new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian begins to feel massive heat, if he's not fired.
The revived Patriots defense didn't offer the Falcons much respite.
"We made them earn every yard," said Pats defensive back Devin McCourty of the Falcons, "and when you play good teams that's what you have to do."
One of the main themes among the defensive players was that a good week of practice led to near-perfect execution of the game plan. Part of that plan was being physical with Atlanta.
"They made so many big plays," Brady said of the defense. "It was a night of big plays for them."
What accounts for the team's defensive turnaround? Two things: The communication was better and there were no obvious blown coverages.
Also, there was something more cerebral. The Patriots despise hearing the media, and others, say they can't do something. For weeks, they've heard how the defense couldn't stop a runny nose, and truth be told, it couldn't. The Patriots entered the Falcons game as the first team in league history to allow a 300-yard passer in six consecutive contests.
But never, ever underestimate how external chatter motivates this franchise, despite its denial that it doesn't.
Considering the troubles the Falcons have been dealing with, it's fair to ask if this Pats performance was a fluke. Probably not. It's likely, based on last year, that much of this season before Sunday was the fluke, and this is normalcy.
And if it is, the rest of the league is in trouble, yet again.