When the Patriots ran:
This was the best effort the Patriots have put forth on the ground this season and it was a huge part of the team's offensive success. After a slow start on the ground in the first quarter when none of their five rushing attempts was successful, the Patriots kicked it into gear thereafter. Over the final three quarters, New England recorded efficient runs (4 yards or more, first down, touchdown) on 19 of its last 27 attempts. Teams generally aim for about 50 percent in that category and the Patriots almost hit 60 for the game. In all, they totaled 162 yards on the ground on 36 attempts including Tom Brady kneel downs. Dion Lewis once again led the way with 76 yards on 13 carries (5.8-yard average) including a 25-yarder that set up the first touchdown. Rex Burkhead returned after a lengthy absence and added 31 yards on six attempts, including three straight 9-yard runs. Mike Gillislee also had 31 yards on eight attempts as the Patriots used their deep backfield to control the ball and clock. About the only negative was the inability to finish drives in the red zone, but the success on the ground allowed the Patriots to dominate throughout.
When the Patriots passed:
There were some early pass protection issues as Brady was hit hard three times in the first 17 minutes, getting sacked twice with one resulting in a fumble he was forced to recover. He also suffered a big blow from Adrian Clayborn as he threw an interception but the Falcons defensive tackle was whistled for roughing the passer to negate the turnover. From there the guys stepped it up, particularly on the inside. The Falcons continued to provide steady pressure off the edge but Brady consistently climbed the pocket and bought time by virtue of the guys in the middle keeping the Falcons at bay. The numbers weren't eye-popping but Brady was efficient and made some terrific throws when he needed them. The best of the night came on a 27-yarder near the left sideline to Rob Gronkowski to convert a third-and-long in the third quarter. That basically ended any Atlanta comeback hopes on a drive the chewed clock and ended in a field goal. Gronkowski finished with three catches for 51 yards while Chris Hogan (four catches, 71 yards) and Brandin Cooks (four catches, 65 yards, 1 TD) did the bulk of the work. Overall Brady was a modest 21 of 29 for 249 yards with a pair of touchdowns with other going to James White (five catches, 28 yards).
When the Falcons ran:
For whatever reason the Falcons seemed intent on trying to establish the run early on and the Patriots were ready for it. David Harris got the start at inside linebacker and saw his most extensive action of the season, playing 19 snaps when Dont'a Hightower was forced to leave the game early with a shoulder injury. Harris didn't play a ton but he was a presence against the run, filling gaps effectively in place of Elandon Roberts (ankle). Malcom Brown (ankle) also missed much of the night with an injury but the front seven responded with some solid work. Devonta Freeman finished with respectable numbers – 12 carries for 72 yards for a 6-yard average – but early on when Atlanta tried to establish the run the Patriots forced the Falcons into long-yardage situations. As a result Atlanta went 0-for-5 on third down in the first half. A lot of that was due to the work against the run. Overall Atlanta finished with 120 yards on 22 carries for a 5.5-yard average, but those numbers are a bit deceiving as Matt Ryan scrambled for 37 yards on three attempts and much of the damage was done in the second half with the Patriots content to play mostly sub defense.
When the Falcons passed:
This was the real surprise of the night. Playing without two of its top three corners in Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) and Eric Rowe (groin), New England was up to the challenge against the Falcons dangerous array of weapons in the passing game. Ryan could not consistently find open targets and when he did he often misfired. He completed 23 of 33 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots finally snapped their streak of allowing 300-yard passers this season. Julio Jones is a beast and he still caught nine passes for 99 yards and a touchdown but he was watched closely all night by virtually everyone. Johnson Bademosi and Malcolm Butler often had safety help and the secondary never allowed him to get into a rhythm and make any big plays. Mohamed Sanu (six catches, 65 yards) also was a virtual non-factor as the Patriots did an excellent job of swarming to the ball and making sure tackles to prevent yards after the catch. Strangely the Falcons never tested the Patriots slow linebackers in the passing game, choosing to throw to Freeman and fellow back Tevin Coleman just four times with Freeman catching three of those for just 18 yards. This was a truly special performance by the Patriots defense and their much-maligned secondary in particular.
The Patriots completed their complementary dominance with a strong night in the third phase as well. It started with a huge blocked field goal by Cassius Marsh, who got some penetration off the right side and blocked Matt Bryant's 37-yard attempt that would have put the Falcons on the board first. Bryant also doinked a 36-yarder off the left upright, further adding the Falcons woes. Stephen Gostkowski once again did a nice job of hanging his kickoffs high and short, allowing the Patriots to create field position with solid coverage. Andre Roberts managed to get past the 25-yard line on just one of his five returns, and one of the others went for just 6 yards as Atlanta started at the 12. Danny Amendola also easily corralled a Falcons onside kick attempt to quell any thoughts of a miracle comeback in the fourth quarter as the Patriots turned in an excellent night of work on special teams.