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Game Observations: Patriots dominate Falcons

The Patriots came into the game searching for some consistency despite holding a 4-2 record and sitting atop the standings in the AFC East race. With the Falcons coming to town with their array of weapons, there was some fear that Sunday night wasn’t the time for that to change.

Instead New England turned in its most dominant performance of the season and came away with a 23-7 victory to improve to 5-2.

Here are some random thoughts from the win over the Falcons.

-The Patriots used a ball control attack that allowed them to hold the ball for more than 34 minutes and dictate the way the game was played. Thanks to a solid effort on the ground, the Patriots were able to run the ball 36 times for an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. That production was a big part of the offensive success, especially in the second quarter when Rex Burkhead stepped into the lineup and ripped off three 9-yard runs and got things moving after a scoreless first quarter. “That was important,” Tom Brady said of the running effort. “Last time we played this team it was a little different. I thought we did a good job of staying balanced tonight. It was great to see the way the linemen were blocking.” Dion Lewis ripped off a 25-yard run and finished with a team-high 76 yards in 13 carries for a 5.8-yard average. Burkhead added 31 yards on six carries while Mike Gillislee also had 31 yards on eight carries. The balance on offense also included a lot of personnel as eight different players had at least three touches.

-The Patriots defense made some changes to the lineup and the results were impressive. With both corners Stephon Gilmore (concussion) and Eric Rowe (groin) out of the lineup once again, Jonathan Bademosi got the start and did a solid job in the first half covering Julio Jones on a key third down in the second quarter. Jordan Richards got the start at safety alongside Devin McCourty while Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon were on the sideline. They both saw plenty of action as well but it was interesting to see the wrinkle to open the game. Even more interesting was the presence of David Harris at linebacker to start. Harris was inactive in two of the last three weeks and did not play in the one game he was active for. Harris did not play much but he was part of a unit that held the Falcons scoreless in the first half, forcing two punts, blocking a field goal and turning the ball over on downs. Atlanta was 0-for-5 on third down in the opening half.

-Much was made about the Falcons emotional state coming off a disastrous loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Some believed (myself included) Atlanta was scarred from the historical collapse and nothing that happened in the first 30 minutes did anything to change that perception. Head coach Dan Quinn brought a curious game plan to Foxborough and it was one that put his team in a hole. Instead of testing the Patriots secondary, which had allowed each of the six quarterbacks they faced this season to throw for more than 300 yards, the Falcons opted to try to establish the run and subsequently put themselves in several third downs early. They couldn’t convert them as the Patriots front seven was up to the challenge. Quinn also went for a fourth-and-seven from the Patriots 48 in a scoreless first quarter, and even though they converted with a Matt Ryan scramble the decision reeked of panic. That drive ended when Cassius Marsh blocked Matt Bryant’s field goal.

-Quinn’s curious night continued later in the first half when he opted to go for another fourth down, this one from the Patriots 47-yard line at the two-minute warning. Atlanta trailed just 10-0 at the time and would be opening the second half with the ball after deferring to start the game, but Quinn went for it on fourth-and-six anyway and Ryan overthrew an open Mohamed Sanu to turn it over on downs. That set up a short field for the Patriots, who capitalized by putting the game away courtesy of Tom Brady’s touchdown pass to James White with 26 seconds left. A Falcons punt would have set up a long field and given Atlanta a chance to get to the locker room down just 10-0. Instead, the gamble didn’t pay off and soon the game was over for all intents and purposes.

-Adrian Clayborn delivered a huge hit on Brady in the second quarter and was flagged for roughing the passer. Clayborn’s hit wasn’t late but it was a bit high, and referee Gene Steratore threw the glad immediately. It was a huge turning point as it negated a Robert Alford interception in the end zone in a scoreless game and soon thereafter the Patriots were on top courtesy of Brandin Cooks’ 14-yard touchdown off a quick shuffle pass.

-Speaking of Cooks’ touchdown, it came off a wrinkle the Patriots haven’t shown much if at all recently. Brady was in the shotgun and Cooks came streaking from right to left at the snap. It appeared as if there might be a jet sweep-type action but instead Brady just shuffled the ball slightly forward to Cooks, who rode the blocking of Rob Gronkowski into the end zone. Cooks grabbed Gronk’s jersey as he motored toward the end zone and used the tight end as a shield as he hit paydirt. Gronk joked after the game that Cooks caught him quickly and yelled, “go Rob, go” as they approached the end zone.

-Despite the dominance the Patriots showed there were a couple of key junctures where the Falcons had chances to make a game of it. Early on De’Vondre Campbell had a blindside strip sack of Brady at 20 but were unable to recover because Brady landed with the ball safely underneath him. The Falcons also missed a pair of short field goals, one of which was blocked by Marsh. In the second half the Falcons marched the length of the field trailing 20-0 and had third-and-goal from the 1. But with two cracks and just a yard to go to break the shutout, Atlanta couldn’t make a play. Ryan’s pass to Jones was knocked away by Malcolm Butler, and on fourth down they tried an ill-fated jet sweep to Taylor Gabriel that Kyle Van Noy read perfectly and turned into a 5-yard loss.

-Going back to Super Bowl LI, and counting the fact that the Patriots jumped to a 23-0 lead, New England rattled off 54 consecutive points against Atlanta before Jones’ garbage time touchdown broke the shutout…. Adam Butler recorded is first-career sack, taking down Ryan for a 10-yard loss. … White’s touchdown catch was his 10th since 2015, the most for NFL running backs during that time.

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