The Atlanta Falcons acted like a team who either didn’t respect the New England Patriots’ defense or felt their own backs were against the wall very early on in Sunday night’s Super Bowl LI rematch.
Facing a fourth-and-7 on the New England 48-yard line with 3:56 left in the first quarter, the Falcons went for it and converted on a 9-yard scramble by quarterback Matt Ryan. Perhaps they then felt invincible — despite the fact the drive ultimately ended with a blocked field goal — because Atlanta went for it again on fourth-and-long near midfield after the two-minute warning.
As the fog began to roll in, Ryan attempted a deep pass to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on fourth-and-6 with 2 minutes left in the first half. Sanu was tightly covered by Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones, and the pass sailed over their heads.
That allowed the Patriots, already leading 10-0, to take over with 1:55 left in the half and 53 yards of squishy artificial turf in front of them.
Reminiscent of Super Bowl LI, it became the James White show to begin the drive. He ran for 5 yards, caught a 6-yard pass and then ran for 8 more yards on the first three plays of the series.
Quarterback Tom Brady picked up a first down on a flat route by Danny Amendola and then hit Brandin Cooks for a chunk play, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Cooks ranks first among qualified wide receivers with 19.2 yards per reception. He’s third in the NFL in receiving yards with 537 as he’s living up to the lofty expectations set for him.
Brady hit Cooks for 18 yards on an impossible-to-defend back-shoulder throw.
Here was cornerback Robert Alford’s coverage on Cooks before Brady let go of the ball.
Here it was right as Cooks was turning.
And here’s the reception, with Cooks falling backward with the ball perfectly placed in his hands.
Alford had tight coverage throughout the play, but Brady’s throw and Cooks’ timing both were perfect.
That put the Patriots at the Falcons’ 11-yard line.
The Falcons were flagged for illegal use of hands, hands to the face on first down when defensive tackle Grady Jarrett ripped off center David Andrews’ helmet.
Then White carried the ball 4 yards to the 2-yard line.
On the next play, Brady didn’t like what he saw to the right from Cooks, Amendola and Chris Hogan out of a bunch formation, so he found White, coming out of the backfield, crossing over the middle of the field for the touchdown.
That put the Patriots up 17-0 and essentially served as the dagger. There would be no 28-3 or 17-0 comeback in this game. The Patriots would win 23-7.
The Falcons went for it on fourth down one more time, however, and though the situation made more sense, the play call did not. Down 20-0 with 14:36 left in the fourth quarter and facing fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, the Falcons called an end-around to wide receiver Taylor Gabriel.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy saw Gabriel coming in motion, sniffed out the play, moved with him and made the stop for a 5-yard loss. It was the kind of play that if someone like Luke Kuechly made, we’d all be raving about the instincts, skill and burst off the line needed for the tackle for loss. Van Noy has been playing extremely well over the last two weeks, and this was probably his best play of the season.
Here are some other assorted takeaways from the game:
— Though the game was tough to watch on TV, in the press box and for fans in the upper deck, the consensus among plays is fog didn’t affect the play on the field. The all-22 coaches tape is essentially useless for the second half, however, is essentially useless.
— The Patriots’ offensive line was rightly criticized after getting Brady hurt on hits and sacks in Weeks 4 and 5, but they’ve strung together two mighty impressive games where they’ve protected their quarterback and opened holes in the running game.
— Dion Lewis is the Patriots’ best running back.
— Rex Burkhead is pretty darn good too, when healthy.
— Fine, so are James White and Mike Gillislee. The Patriots are in good shape in the backfield.
— Tight end Dwayne Allen still doesn’t have a catch. Brady hasn’t targeted him since Week 4.
— Is the Patriots’ defense good? That’s a strong statement I’m not yet willing to make. They’ve played well over the last three games, but it’s tough to simply forget the first four weeks of the season when they were atrocious.
— Defensive tackle Alan Branch looked like himself again. It appears his Week 5 benching, and what caused it, are behind him.
— Who saw Johnson Bademosi becoming the Patriots’ most consistent cornerback this season? Oh, you also knew the Patriots would win Super Bowl LI while down 28-3? How convenient. Well, sit down and stop lying. The Patriots should keep rolling with Bademosi until cornerback Eric Rowe returns from his groin injury. Based on how Rowe is moving in the locker room, that could be a while longer.
Thumbnail photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports Images