The New England Patriots defeated the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night, winning 25-0 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here are seven things we learned in that Week 11 matchup:
1. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the AFC
The best? Maybe not. We’ll find out when they face the conference-leading Tennessee Titans next week, then the reigning AFC East champion Buffalo Bills in two of the next three games after that. But this now looks like a team, at 7-4, that can legitimately contend for a spot in Super Bowl LVI. They would take over the top spot in their if Buffalo loses to Indianapolis on Sunday. 2-4 feels like a long, long time ago.
2. This defense is downright scary
No one expected a Falcons offense without Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson to pose much of a threat, but the ferocity with which New England smothered that Matt Ryan-led unit would be impressive against any opponent. The Patriots finished with four sacks, 12 quarterback hits and four interceptions — one on each of Atlanta’s final four possessions — while holding Ryan and Co. to 165 total yards.
Over the course of their current five-game winning streak, the Patriots have outscored opponents 175-50. They’ve allowed six, seven and zero points in their last three games. Their defense hasn’t let up more than 24 points in regulation in any game this season.
“I don’t want to brag too much, but I feel like we’ve got one of the best defenses in the league right now,” cornerback J.C. Jackson accurately stated in his postgame news conference.
The Patriots are surrendering just 16.1 points per game through 11 weeks. The only team with a better mark? The Bills, at 15.0.
3. Kyle Van Noy is on an absolute heater
We wrote last week about the veteran linebacker’s playmaking hot streak, which included four pass breakups, a sack and a forced fumble over the previous four games. Well, Van Noy one-upped himself Thursday night, delivering a wrecking-ball performance reminiscent of the game he had in the same building in Super Bowl LIII.
Van Noy sacked Ryan twice — tossing a fullback to the turf on one, patiently dancing around the Falcons QB on the other — tallied a team-high eight tackles and closed out the scoring with a pick-six off second-stringer Josh Rosen.
“It’s fun to play a game like that,” he told reporters postgame. “Those are the kind of games you dream about as a kid.”
4. Kyle Dugger continues to make strides
Stopping stud rookie tight end Kyle Pitts was priority No. 1 for the Patriots’ defense on Thursday, and Dugger spearheaded that effort. On Atlanta’s opening drive, he broke up a third-down pass intended for Pitts. Later, his jam on the first-round draft pick led directly to Devin McCourty’s interception.
Dugger also dished out a few more seismic hits, but his work on Pitts made this a particularly noteworthy performance for the second-year safety. Man coverage against tight ends has been Dugger’s biggest weakness, and he played a key role in holding an emerging star at the position — someone Bill Belichick called a “superstar” and said is a cross between Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez — to three catches on five targets for 29 yards. That’s big.
This continued a positive trend for the player teammates call “King Dugg”:
5. Mac Jones was efficent — but not flawless
The rookie quarterback completed 22 of 26 passes but threw an ugly interception in the third quarter, chucking a deep ball to Jonnu Smith that was picked by cornerback A.J. Terrell. That came immediately after his two best throws of the night: third-down conversions to Jakobi Meyers (with a blitzing safety in his face) and Hunter Henry (on a perfectly placed pass).
Jones also was visibly frustrated after sacks forced the Patriots to settle for field goals on two separate drives. All three Falcons sacks came when blitzers shot into the backfield unblocked. Jones said Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees (who held that same role with New England from 2006 to 2009) “emptied the clip” with his creative blitz packages.
Occasional mistakes aside, Jones is completing a gaudy 83.7% of his passes over the last two games, including a 14-for-15 start Thursday night.
6. Physicality is a key to the Patriots’ success
Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson combined for 127 rushing yards Thursday night, routinely stiff-arming, bowling over or running directly through Falcons defenders. The offensive line — especially right tackle Trent Brown and right guard Shaq Mason — has manhandled opponents the last two weeks. Defensively, the likes of Davon Godchaux, Lawrence Guy, Carl Davis, Dont’a Hightower, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Matthew Judon and Van Noy have been overpowering opposing blockers and flooding the backfield with bodies.
In one key sequence, with the Patriots leading 13-0 in the third quarter, they stopped the Falcons on third-and-inches and fourth-and-inches from their own 16-yard line. New England wants to win by dominating the trenches, and that exactly what it’s doing.
7. This game was closer than it should have been
The Patriots moved the ball well for much of the game — they averaged 6.2 yards per play in the first half — but managed just one offensive touchdown, with negative plays derailing several possessions. These included the aforementioned sacks, Jones’ interception and some costly penalties. Smith and David Andrews both were flagged for holding, and core special teamers Justin Bethel and Cody Davis committed fouls on punt returns.
“We had, obviously, way too many penalties,” Belichick told reporters postgame. “Killed us in the return game. Killed us offensively.”
Belichick’s troops were more disciplined than Arthur Smith’s, though. The Falcons committed nine penalties to the Patriots’ five, including a particularly painful illegal formation call on a made field goal. They backed up 5 yards and missed the ensuing rekick.
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