The New England Patriots didn't need to overcome a 25-point deficit this time around, as they defeated the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 Sunday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
It was the first time the two teams met since New England's historic comeback at February's Super Bowl LI.
Tom Brady finished 21-of-29 for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
Julio Jones had the play of the game in a losing effort. He took the ball away from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler in the fourth quarter for Atlanta's first touchdown of the game. The NFL shared a replay of the catch:
MOSSED. 😳 @juliojones_11 rips the ball away for the TD! #ATLvsNE #InBrotherhood https://t.co/9GLvP9tfe22017-10-23 03:15:32
Jones finished with nine receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown, and according to the Falcons' official Twitter account, he became the second-fastest wide receiver to reach 8,000 career yards. After Sunday night, Jones has 8,076 receiving yards over six-plus seasons.
Conditions weren't exactly optimal inside Gillette Stadium as the air became increasingly foggy. The NFL showed what it was like for fans at home watching the NBC broadcast:
So... it's just a bit foggy in Foxborough. #ATLvsNE https://t.co/BtimXIIygD2017-10-23 02:18:12
NESN's Matt Chatham didn't think the fog affected the players, though:
Matt Chatham @chatham58
Visibility is sharp & normal down on the field. Fog is just a viewing issue for higher up fans, media, and high TV cams. #Patriots #Falcons2017-10-23 02:30:15
NBC had to call an audible, however, and use a different camera angle to show the action. Rather than the traditional view from high up on the sidelines, fans were offered the quarterback's perspective, which caught the attention of the Madden video game series:
EA SPORTS Madden NFL @EAMaddenNFL
This camera angle looks familiar... #ATLvsNE2017-10-23 02:35:51
Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz would like to see the trend catch on:
Geoff Schwartz @geoffschwartz
Can we have this camera angle every game please?2017-10-23 02:38:44
The fog added a unique wrinkle to an otherwise one-sided game.
The Falcons entered Sunday night fifth in total offense (378.4 yards per game) and fourth in offensive efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. That high-powered Atlanta offense struggled to move the ball against New England in the opening half.
The Patriots shut out the Falcons through the first two quarters and limited Atlanta to 130 total yards. Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar noted a tactical tweak the Falcons have made since former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to coach the San Francisco 49ers:
Doug Farrar @BR_DougFarrar
Falcons are far more static pre-snap than they were last season. Ryan used positional mismatches to define the passing offense. Not now.2017-10-23 01:02:51
Doug Farrar @BR_DougFarrar
The pre-snap phase is what made Ryan special under Shanahan. Now, it's the usual "beat your man" stuff. Not his best attribute.2017-10-23 01:04:34
CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora made a similar point:
Jason La Canfora @JasonLaCanfora
The Falcons passing game is lost without Kyle Shanahan. I expected bigtime regression, just not outright submersion2017-10-23 02:20:39
ESPN Stats & Info noted Atlanta's slow start had carried over from its Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Falcons haven't scored a point in their last 4 quarters of play. Since taking a 17-0 lead against the Dolphins they've been outscored 37-0.2017-10-23 02:18:33
Not all of the blame for the team's scoring issues deserved to land on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's doorstep. Matt Bryant missed his first two field goals. The Patriots blocked his first attempt from 37 yards out and his second from 36 hit the left upright.
Sarkisian's play call on 4th-and-goal at the Patriots' 1-yard line will likely be a point of contention among Falcons fans, though. After Ryan's pass to Julio Jones fell incomplete on third down, the Falcons went with an empty backfield on fourth down and gave the ball to Taylor Gabriel on a jet sweep to the right. The Falcons lost five yards on the play and turned the ball over on downs.
Bill Barnwell of ESPN thought some were too quick to pile on Sarkisian:
Bill Barnwell @billbarnwell
Jet sweep didn’t work, but Falcons had an open receiver on third down and Ryan threw it behind him. That’s not on Sarkisian.2017-10-23 02:49:29
The Patriots offense, meanwhile, wasn't firing on all cylinders but did more than enough to outpace the Falcons. New England scored 17 points in the second quarter on the strength of touchdown receptions from Brandin Cooks and James White. Stephen Gostkowski also connected on a 29-yard field goal.
He later gave the Patriots more breathing room with a pair of second-half field goals before Jones got the Falcons on the board.
The victory gives the Patriots sole possession of first place in the AFC East. They hold a half-game lead over the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.
Sunday night was business as usual for the New England offense, which has been among the best in the NFL this season. The Patriots defense, on the other hand, was allowing the most yards in the league (440.7) heading into Week 7. The Patriots held Atlanta to 343 yards, significantly below its season average.
As good as Brady and New England's offense have been, the defense will likely determine if the team can repeat as Super Bowl champions. Sunday night will allay some fears fans had about whether the unit can step up against tough competition.
On the Falcons' sideline, the game will raise even more questions, as Atlanta has now lost three straight. It won an NFC title in 2016 after a 4-3 start, so a 3-3 record through seven weeks is not a reason to panic.
Still, it's impossible to ignore how the offense has taken a step back, and the Falcons won't go anywhere until Sarkisian and head coach Dan Quinn resolve the issue.
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