Falcons at Patriots final score, takeaways: New England defense crushes Atlanta
Eight months later and the Falcons still had no answer for the Patriots
In February, the Patriots pulled off one of the most memorable comebacks in NFL history, erasing a 28-3 deficit to win Super Bowl LI in overtime against the Falcons. On Sunday, the two teams met in the rematch, but the Patriots had no need for a comeback. Instead, the Patriots dominated from opening kick, finishing Sunday night with a 23-7 win over last year's NFC champs.
The plan for the Falcons was to get Julio Jones more involved and to lean on a running game more than capable of sharing the offensive burden. But the Falcons had a field goal blocked late in the first quarter and fell behind 7-0 after Brandin Cooks rode the Gronk Plow into the end zone on the very next drive.
And with that, the Falcons looked a lot like the team that squandered that 28-3 Super Bowl lead eight months ago, lacking confidence when the lights were brightest -- or at least that how it appeared. Atlanta's defense looked overmatched early on the next drive before holding New England to a field goal and a 10-point led midway through the first half.
The Falcons again looked like they were on the verge of something when Devonta Freeman opened the next drive with an 11-yard run, but a penalty, a sack and an overthrow on fourth-and-6 gave the Patriots the ball at midfield with two minutes on the clock. You've seen this movies hundreds of times in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, the only thing that changes are the victims.
Seven plays later, Brady throws a laser to James White for a touchdown to end the half. It was as clinical a two-minute drill as you'll ever see.
Incidentally, a mysterious fog rolled into Gillette Stadium during the Pats' final drive of the second quarter and it still wasn't enough to slow them up.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn promised to attack in the second half, and the Falcons came out doing exactly that -- thanks largely to their running game. But as has been the case all season, Ryan struggled throwing the ball deep -- he ranked a mind-boggling 21st in deep passing coming into the game, according to Pro Football Focus. He missed Jones and Sanu in the end zone on back-to-back attempts and Matt Bryant promptly honked a 36-yard attempt, leaving the Falcons with nothing to show for their troubles -- other than more questions about the current state of their offense.
The questions only intensified on the next drive when the Falcons found themselves facing a third-and-goal from the Patriots' 1-yard line. On third down, Ryan threw a low-percentage pass to Jones that fell incomplete. And the offense followed that up with an even lower-percentage jet sweep to ... Taylor Gabriel.
Not-so-fun fact if you're the Falcons: The Patriots scored the last 31 points in the Super Bowl and the first 23 points of the rematch.
Thankfully, mercifully, Atlanta finally got into the end zone with just over four minutes to go. Perhaps fittingly, Ryan found Jones, who snatched the ball away from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.
In the end, the touchdown was meaningless, and the Patriots cruised to a 23-7 victory.
Shanahan vs. Sarkisian
There are plenty of explanations for the difference between the 2016 Falcons offense that blew everybody off the field and resulted in Matt Ryan earning league MVP honors, and the 2017 unit that has struggled in three straight losses -- including home losses to the Bills and Dolphins. But the most obvious change came in the offseason when offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left to take the 49ers' coaching job and was replaced by Steve Sarkisian.
Ryan, who had a 117.1 passer rating a season ago, was at 87.3 through six games, the largest drop by any quarterback from 2016 to 2017. Ryan also has just six touchdowns against six interceptions a year after throwing 38 touchdowns and seven picks total. Here's what CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora :
Last season Atlanta scored 505 offensive points (eliminating special teams scores, defensive scores, etc), which was 38 more than any other team in the NFL, for a ridiculous average of 31.6 per game. This year, it's not even close. Atlanta ranks 14th in offensive points scored, at 22.8 per game, almost 10 points less than a year ago. That is a game changer, folks, with the margin for victory -- or defeat -- now much tighter and leading to more close and late defeats (and had the Bears not dropped a pass in the end zone the Falcons would've lost in Chicago and it took a gift call to get them past the Lions in controversial fashion; this team could easily be 1-4). ...
Atlanta's minus-32 second-half scoring differential is third-worst in football (only Arizona and Indianapolis are worse) and, while overall NFL teams are 33-9 when leading at the half at home, the Falcons are just 1-2 in those instances in their new football palace (Dallas is 1-2 as well, accounting for nearly half of such losses in the entire league between 2016 NFC runaway division winners).
The scrutiny of Sarkisian will only intensify after the Falcons' latest no-show performance on offense.
The Patriots and the curse of the 300-yard passers
Matt Patricia's defense came into Sunday night's game ranked dead last in the league, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. This was the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense in 2016, an instrumental cog in the team's Super Bowl comeback, and suddenly, in the span of a month and a half, they had transformed themselves into the league's worst unit. How bad was it?
Here are how opposing quarterbacks fared against the Pats in the first six games:
- Week 1: Alex Smith, 368 yards;
- Week 2: Drew Brees, 356 yards;
- Week 3: Deshaun Watson, 301 yards;
- Week 4: Cam Newton, 316 yards;
- Week 5: Jameis Winston, 334 yards;
- Week 6: Josh McCown, 354 yards
And then Ryan, reigning MVP who threw for at least 300 yards on six occasions in 2016, came to town:
- Week 7: Matt Ryan, 233 yards -- and that includes 110 yards in the first half
Seriously, it was really foggy
Just in case you didn't believe us above.
About that Super Bowl hangover
We don't believe in Super Bowl hangovers because, well, there's no way an entire organization can be affected for the entirety of the season based on one loss that took place eight months prior. But common sense doesn't keep us from talking about it -- or asking those involved about what it means to them.
And for Falcons owner Arthur Blank, those questions came at last week's owners meetings.
"Last year is finished," Blank told NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. "I'd say the franchise had a wonderful year, I mean that truly. Both on and off the field. We finished our stadium, the team had a wonderful year, competed at the highest level. It didn't end the way we wanted to, we certainly didn't conclude the way we wanted to. But we've learned from it, grown from it, I think we're better for it."
And regarding any lingering Super Bowl hangover?
"I don't think it's an issue, I really don't," Blank continued. "Not for the staff, the coach, for the players. They are onto this year. You have this 24-hour rule. You don't have a grace period from one year to the next because you lost the Super Bowl. It doesn't work that way. You don't get six days off when you lose a game to end your season. We're beyond that. Right now, we've lost the last two games at home, which is not good. We're on the road for three games. We got enough to focus on."
Blank is right -- the Falcons didn't get their doors blown off in Foxborough because of what happened in the final 20 minutes of Super Bowl LI. Right now, they're not a very good team. That's how you lose at home to the Jay Cutler-led Dolphins after leading 17-0, and it's how you get embarrassed again on national television by the Patriots.
Now the question is if the Falcons can get right; their schedule isn't easy. Their next two games are on the road against the Jets and Panthers, then they'll host the Cowboys and travel to Seattle. Best case: They're 7-3 and exactly where they want to be. Worst case: They're 3-7 and looking ahead to 2018.
Stop us if you've heard this before
Apparently, the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead late in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI. This little bit of NFL trivia was on full display Sunday night. The lowlight (at least for this poor sap) had to be this jersey:
From Super Bowl LI to Super Bowl LII
The rumors were confirmed shortly before Sunday night's kickoff: Justin Timberlake will, in fact, be the halftime entertainment next February in Minneapolis.
Good luck topping Lady Gaga's prescient impression of the Falcons' fourth quarter and overtime effort in Super Bowl LI, Justin.
The Patriots (5-2) host the suddenly relevant Los Angeles Chargers, winners of three straight after starting the season 0-4. The Falcons (3-3), meanwhile, will travel to face the New York Jets, who are 3-4 in what has become one of the league's most competitive divisions.
Week 15 provided a lot of clarity to the NFL postseason
Here are the Week 15 grades for every team that played Sunday
The Steelers are trying to accomplish something they rarely do: Beat the Patriots
There's no need for eliminated teams to trot out veteran quarterbacks
All of the best highlights from Week 15 are right here
The Steelers' most dangerous player went down in the second quarter and won't return