FOXBOROUGH - Billed as a Super Bowl LI rematch by many, it turned once again into a nightmare for the Falcons.
Super Bowl hangover, perhaps? Atlanta certainly looked like it was in a figurative fog, not just a literal one.
The eerie atmospheric conditions that crept into Gillette Stadium during the game turned Foxborough into Fogs-borough, lending a Halloween-like quality to the proceedings, which seemed to spook the Falcons into some frightening memories of the second half of Super Bowl LI.
"It was an emotional game," admitted safety/co-captain Duron Harmon. "They're a really good football team. It was fun, it was competitive. Games like that, you live for. You wish you could play in games like that each and every week."
"It was an emotional game," left tackle Nate Solder emphasized. "I think we knew they were a good opponent, and we had to come ready to play."
It was odd watching it all unfold, though.
For starters, the Patriots had surrendered 300-yard passers in each of their first six games this season. So, you would have thought Atlanta would have come to Foxborough wanting to throw the football more than they did. Yet, they thought it more judicious to establish the run for much of the contest, predictably on numerous 1st downs.
That wasn't Falcons head coach Dan Quinn's only mystifying decision.
Going for it on 4th-and-long not once, but twice, around midfield? Going 5-wide with 15 seconds to go in the first half, from their own 19-yard line, risking a potential disaster?
What were the Falcons thinking? Whatever the rationale, it wasn't clear (and that had nothing to do with the weather).
New England, meanwhile, played its best game defensively, by far, in 2017.
"Oh, yeah, definitely," Harmon continued. "We played a lot better. It's not perfect. Not even close to being perfect… but it was a start, man. Everybody out there played with confidence, they played fast, they played physical, and that's the reason why we won today."
"No big plays. Tackled well. Communication [improved]," cornerback Malcolm Butler explained. "Just playing smarter and better."
Until Atlanta's star wideout Julio Jones caught a touchdown pass from Matt Ryan – or more accurately, ripped it from Butler's hands – with just over four minutes to go in the game, the Patriots had pitched a shutout on the Falcons dating back to the middle of the third quarter of the Super Bowl back in February.
"Prepared like it was the most important game of our lives. We knew they were talented," declared cornerback Johnson Bademosi, starting for the second straight week in place of injured Stephon Gilmore.
The Patriots offense wasn't nearly at its best, but effective enough, with a balanced attack of Tom Brady throws to seven different receivers and four running backs getting significant carries throughout the night, led by Dion Lewis and his 76 yards.
The New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, October 22, 2017.
"We've got a great group of guys. Everybody can make plays," Lewis said of the running back committee. "The running game definitely helps the whole team. It helps set up the passing game. It's a big part of what we're trying to do."
That was certainly true against Atlanta, as the Patriots ran slightly more times than they threw the ball and accumulated 162 yards of offense on the ground.
"It's great. We've got so many backs that can do multiple things," observed Burkhead, who saw his first game action since sustaining a rib injury in Week 2. "When you have that versatility, it really helps us out as an offense. We love that. We compete with each other, but we're the first ones there to root for one another when we make a big play. It was fun tonight to see everyone get their foot in the door."
For three weeks now, New England has averaged 22 points per game, down from the 33 it was posting in the first month of the season. However, despite a slower-than-expected start to this season, the Patriots appear to be solidifying some areas of deficiency on defense and have kept opponents to fewer than 20 points over the recent three-game span.
"Everything we didn't want to do, we did in those [first few] weeks, and we learned from it," added Harmon. "We're starting to do our job more consistently. That's the only thing I can really say. Our consistency is a lot better – whether it's calling the plays, our techniques, communication. Everything is more consistent and it allows us to play faster."
"Offense did a great job of keeping us off the field and taking time off the clock, running the ball. The DBs covered their [tails] off, special teams played well. Big game for everybody," said DE Cassius Marsh, who provided a big play of his own with a blocked field goal attempt.
This so-called rematch might not have had any trophies at stake, but it proved pivotal, perhaps, for the reigning champions' overall confidence, which had taken a hit to start this season.
"It's a game we can definitely build off of," stated Solder. "I think we did a lot of good things. I know I played better and I know that's the way I want to play, and I want to keep doing that."
"If anything," Harmon concluded, "we're sending a message to ourselves, letting us know if we play consistent and do things the right way, it's going to be hard for teams to move the ball on us, hard for teams to beat us."