The Patriots didn’t have to come back this time.
They just started bashing the Falcons from the start, and never let up.
New England rolled to a 23-7 win over the Falcons, extending their streak of unanswered points against Atlanta to 54 before the Falcons got on the board late.
This one simply was never close, as the Falcons couldn’t do a thing with the league’s worst defense (at least in terms of yards allowed).
The Patriots have proven over the years they can beat teams in multiple ways, but generally by being diverse on offense. Sunday, the defense made a case for the first time this season, though it’s unclear if they were taking advantage of a struggling Falcons team or making progress.
But the larger point stood, as it did in February in Houston. The Patriots are simply better coached, and better than the Falcons, and time only made any potential edge in young talent the Falcons might have had more negligible. And also, mentally tougher.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. Never mind exorcising the ghosts of last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons need to prove they’re still good at football this year.
They’re 3-3 after walking in off a pair of oddball losses to the Bills and Dolphins, and have back-to-back road trips on deck. Granted, those trips are to the also-scuffling Jets and Panthers, but the Falcons lack a bit of an identity at the moment.
They’re still clearly getting used to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, and his decision-making deserves scrutiny. The early fourth-quarter trip to the red zone was a real mess, and they’re probably fortunate the fog kept people from seeing it.
Running Taylor Gabriel on an end-around on fourth-and-goal from the 1 was a mystery, and when it lost 5 yards it seemed to sum up their night.
They’re only benefitting from the fact their division is still wide open. The Saints are leading at the moment at 4-2, but it’s reasonable to be skeptical of their streak. With the Panthers dropping two in a row and the Bucs losing three straight, it’s hard to see who really wants to win the NFL South right now.
2. Falcons rookie linebacker Duke Riley isn’t a household name, and you wouldn’t think he’d have such a big impact on a game.
But when the third-rounder from LSU left the game with a knee injury, the Patriots pounced.
The Falcons moved safety Kemal Ishmael up into the box in his absence, and the Patriots immediately started leaning on their run game.
Patriots running back Rex Burkhead popped three separate 9-yard runs in the aftermath, as the New England worked them from the inside out.
3. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is on historic pace, despite the fact the Falcons don’t throw it to him nearly enough.
In the second quarter, he topped 8,000 receiving yards, in just his 85th career game.
Only Hall of Famer Lance Alworth has gotten there more quickly, and he needed 83 games to get there.
If Jones can stay healthy, he should be able to challenge some of the biggest numbers in the game, as long as they use him. He hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention under Sarkisian, as a third-quarter shot was just the second time he was targeted in the red zone this year.
There’s no real excuse for that.
When he finally plucked the ball off Malcolm Butler‘s head in the fourth quarter, it looked like he was frustrated and determined to end the skid all at the same time. It doesn’t have to be that hard, when you have a player like Jones, you feed him.
4. And if Jones is salty for not getting enough looks (and there are no indications he is), Devonta Freeman ought to be as well (though there are no indications he is).
Freeman only got 15 touches Sunday night (12 carries and three receptions), which is hard to explain against such a welcoming defense.
5. When the Jets were being disassembled, it seemed like David Harris going to the Patriots was the perfect fit, and the best opportunity for a guy to find a similar role on a better team.
But Sunday night was the first time he started for the Patriots, and he barely played the first six games.
Harris had just seven defensive snaps for the Patriots in the first month and a half, and might have seen more action Sunday if the Falcons had bothered to run more.
He’s still a solid run defender, and when they were without Dont'a Hightower, it’s clear he has value to the Patriots.