Well, I called that one. (Note: I did not.) I knew for weeks that the Patriots would beat the Falcons 23-7, while holding the visitors scoreless until just over four minutes remained in the contest (untrue). I also predicted that, for the first time in 2017, they would hold an opposing quarterback to under 300 yards passing (such an overtly false statement, as is every statement in this paragraph). I knew – yes, gentle readers, knew – New England would coast to a comfortable victory vs. Atlanta (nunh-unh), and predicted as much via Twitter (here’s the tweet, so, nothing doing).
What a crazy game. Not just because of the scary-movie-level fog, but due to expectations. The Patriots seemed to smash through their ceiling while the Falcons retreated to the basement. Maybe the clearest snapshot of this game began to form, like an old Polaroid, about midway through the first quarter when Atlanta took possession for the second time. On third and four near midfield, Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (a team-leading seven tackles) sliced through traffic to wrap up Devonte Freeman for a three-yard loss. The Falcons went for it on fourth and seven and converted on a nine-yard Matt Ryan run, a play the Gillette crowd viewed as if watching their toddler fall at the playground: a slow, painful moment infused with helplessness. After Mohammed Sanu’s 19-yard catch across the middle got the visitors to New England’s 19, the home squad went to work.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler flew in like a missile and upended Tevin Coleman for no gain. After two incompletions (including a nice pass break-up by Jonathan Jones on third and 10), Atlanta tried a 37-yard field goal, which was a victory for the defense in itself. Cue special teams, as edge defender/lanky action-movie henchman Cassius Marsh ricocheted through a gap in the line and side-hopped into the backfield to block the attempt.
Now, the offense’s turn. After an inauspicious beginning (sack of Tom Brady, one-yard loss by Mike Gillislee, false start by tackle Nate Solder) made it third and 16, Chris Hogan slid for a 20-yard pass. Running back/human car battery Dion Lewis shot up the middle for his 25-yard jaunt where he crashed through one defender and carried two others for the final six yards. Then – and this was a key a play as any – Brady threw an expletive-inducing interception where the nearest receiver appeared to be in the locker room; however, Atlanta’s roughing the passer penalty gave New England the ball back. After Gillislee toughed out five yards, Brady tapped his shotgun snap like a volleyball setter into the hands of receiver Brandin Cooks, who went careening around the left side and, with help from his Brobdingnagian escort Rob Gronkowski, plowed through the congregation at the pylon for a touchdown.
To summarize, with 2:07 left in the first quarter, the Falcons had a first and 10 on the Patriots’ 19 and failed to gain a yard. By the 12:36 mark of the second quarter, the home team had a 7-0 lead. It took effort and execution from defense, special teams, and offense for New England to establish how this game would go.
The Patriots host the Chargers next Sunday at 1 p.m. If they can play with a similar focus as they did vs. Atlanta, things should go well for them.
Oh Yes It’s Brady’s Night, Oh What A Night: Not the most productive game by Brady overall (in fact, yardage-wise, it was his lowest output of the year), but his 21 of 29 completions for 249 yards and two touchdowns meshed well with New England’s offensive game plan to run the football and maintain possession. (The Patriots converted seven of 13 third downs for an impressive 53 percent rate, compared to the Falcons going two for nine for 22 percent.) Whether it was the aforementioned 20-yarder to Hogan on third and 16 on their first touchdown drive, or a 27-yard toss on third and eight that Gronk clamped onto like a lobster on a six-year-old’s thumb (it can happen, people: do not tease the lobsters), or a two-yard QB sneak on third and one that helped the Patriots run out the clock in the fourth, Brady did what needed to be done.
Dressed To The Nines: Great contributions from the running back crew on Sunday. Rex Burkhead returned and had a series of nine-yard runs in the second quarter (three on their first field goal drive) that set up some easy one-yard conversions. He had six runs for 31 yards and special teams tackles on kickoffs both before and after halftime. Gillislee once again ran with righteous anger, staying low and digging out extra yardage for 31 on eight carries. Lewis bobbed, bounced, and bolted his way to 76 yards on 13 carries, an impressive 5.8-yard average. White had four totes for 19 yards, but more importantly, his five catches for 28 yards and a touchdown kept Atlanta off-balance (and probably brought up some less-than-fond memories). All told, 157 yards rushing from the backs, along with 45 total receiving yards. Strong night that showcased the versatility of this group and often kept the visitors guessing.
You Take The Goodemosi, You Take The Bademosi: It’s just the facts of life – we can’t go any further without pointing out the surprisingly solid performance from the defensive backfield against one of the most dangerous passer-receiver combos in the NFL (I mean, did you see Julio Jones’ TD catch? He looked like an overeager adult battling for a foul ball at a Little League game). We expected this level of play from Butler and the safeties (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon), it’s the lesser-know guys like Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi stepping up that has surprised us. Bademosi had seven tackles, including an alert stop on a bubble screen where he darted past his blocker. He also broke up a third-and-four pass to Julio Jones in the second quarter that forced Atlanta to punt, a big play considering New England had just scored and would go on an ensuing field goal drive for a 10-0 lead. Jones (one tackle) consistently stayed in the action, breaking up passes and shadowing receivers all over the field.
Now, I’ve heard some say that the Patriots defense is better with Bademosi and without Stephon Gilmore (hi there, Troy Brown!). While they have certainly played better of late, it seems that they’ll need Gilmore’s physical abilities moving forward. The team did a commendable job limiting Julio Jones to nine catches for 99 yards, with four grabs and 36 of those yards coming on the Falcons’ final possession. Still, having Gilmore handle Jones and other, bigger receivers like him can add a dimension to this defense that most offenses should have difficulty contending with.
There’s no question Bademosi and Jonathan Jones have performed beyond expectations while Gilmore has dwelled below them; however, when Gilmore comes back, he’ll get another chance to integrate himself into the defense. Don’t forget, I’m the master of predictions. (Again: no.)
I Said Stop: No better microcosm of the defense’s play than their tremendous fourth-quarter goal-line stop. At the end of the third, the Patriots showed signs of a prevent defense, allowing Freeman to chew up lambchop-sized chunks of yardage via the run (nine-, 10-, eight-yard gains) and pass (nine-yard reception). The absence of defensive lineman Malcom Brown didn’t help matters, for what it’s worth. After three passes (two to Jones, one to Sanu), Atlanta lingered on New England’s one-yard line with 14:42 left in the fourth. On third down, Butler broke up an end zone pass to Jones. On fourth down, the Falcons tried to jet speedy Taylor Gabriel around the right side, but a) defensive end Trey Flowers burst into the backfield to keep Gabriel’s path parallel to the line of scrimmage, and b) Van Noy tracked him down and wrapped him up for a five-yard loss. You can see the play here.
You can question the play call all you like, but this epitomized the kind of key defensive series the team had been missing in 2017.
It’s Now And It’s Slater: If you have a chance, watch the Patriots kickoffs after their field goals at 4:12 of the third and 9:15 of the fourth. By using end zone cameras (more on that in Random Observations below), you get a sense of the immediacy of special teams and the relentless effort of ace Matthew Slater. On the former kickoff, Slater manages to contend with and shed a double team, sprint to the opening in the blocking wall, and make the tackle alongside Nate Ebner. In the fourth quarter, he blasts past a high-impact block to get to the sideline and escort the runner out of bounds just behind Brandon King. Remarkable to watch, and – especially from that angle – a reminder of both what it takes to play the sport and why NFL players tend to have short careers.
Beware The Eyes Of Marsh: A wonderful special teams play by Marsh helped us overlook his infuriating tendency to lose contain on quarterback runs. The first happened on that fourth and seven conversion via Ryan’s nine-yard trot around the defensive left (i.e., Marsh’s side). There’s an argument that Marsh got held on the play, and that may be true, but he was already several steps toward the center, which made it easier for right tackle Ryan Schraeder to reach his arms around him. In other words, if Marsh had kept his outside shoulder free, Ryan would have had a tougher path to the first-down marker while the officials would have had a better view of any potential hold. You can watch that play here and judge for yourself. Later, with 13:40 left in the third, Marsh lost contain again, this time looping behind Ryan and giving him free passage for 16 yards on third and five.
Both drives ended in failed field goal attempts (the Marsh block, the Matt Bryant doink off the left upright), but what’s most frustrating about Marsh is that he can, in fact, perform his role correctly, as seen with 1:19 remaining in the first quarter. On third and 10, Marsh rushed from his sprinter’s stance and engaged with Schraeder. Marsh kept the tackle at arm’s length and stayed to Ryan’s outside, forcing the QB to scramble to his left and attempt a difficult throw across his body that Jones broke up. So, yes, it’s possible; it just needs to become more probable.
The Tortoise And The Harris: He may not be fast afoot, but linebacker David Harris finally got to demonstrate his potential in this defense. Harris had three tackles on the night, none more impactful (in myriad ways) than his tete-á-tete encounter with Coleman at 11:26 of the third. Harris brought muscle and toughness to the middle, as well as a sense of calm that has a tendency to go missing without Dont’a Hightower manning his post. Interesting to see how much Harris plays this week considering Hightower’s shoulder injury that will keep him out.
(Edit: Well, damnit. According to Thursday morning reports, Hightower suffered a pectoral injury and is out for the season, as Ian Rappaport reported first. Two articles of note: Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston looks at a committee approach to filling the void, while Mike Reiss of ESPN.com lists potential moves for the Patriots as the trade deadline approaches. In any case, it’s worth repeating: damnit.)
The Butler, Part 2: Undrafted rookie Adam Butler had three tackles and one sack and generated pressure from the interior defensive line. May he deliver more sacks than a Crown Royal distributor.
Laughter In Dwayne? I have to say, it’s just not funny anymore. The Backup Tight Ends 2017 Reception Count continues this week: rookie Jacob Hollister two, veteran Dwayne Allen zero. I mean, that could improve, right? Amazing he hasn’t become a viable target in seven games. It seems like something has to change there.
The Chargers have won three games in a row, the latest a 21-0 spanking of Denver. Should be interesting to see how New England stacks up.
Misty Blue: I don’t have all that much to say about NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast, mostly because it maintained the consistency and professionalism that I’ve come to expect. I did especially enjoy the musical references to the fog as they went to commercial, with “Purple Haze,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “Hazy Shade of Winter” playing them off. On the last, it took me a minute to get the connection, and that only happened after my wife coaxed me along.
Wife: Hey, listen.
Me: Yeah. I remember that song.
Wife: No, “Hazy Shade of Winter.”
Wife: You know, hazy? Like fog?
Me: Oh. Ohhhh. Nice!
Yeah, I might not be the smart one in the family. Anyway, some nice touches by Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, including Michaels pointing out the Patriots get more offensive pass interference calls than anyone (in reference to a call against Gronkowski). Some others…
• Collinsworth noting how Atlanta’s defense was taking too long to line up vs. New England’s hurry-up offense, resulting in a breathless timeout.
• Kudos to Collinsworth for his quick, sharp analysis on the Patriots’ combination blocks after yet another Burkhead nine-yard rush at 6:52 of the third quarter.
• With 8:20 remaining in the third, Collinsworth gave a solid look at White crossing the backfield to pick up a blitzer, a play resulting in a Cooks catch, adding, “Tom Brady’s passer rating actually goes up when you blitz him.” You tell ’em, CC.
• Mentioned this before with Slater’s kickoff coverage, but necessity in this game may become the mother of more frequent overall use of the horizontal field camera angle. While it’s difficult to get a read on the vertical progress (one run by Gillislee seemed to gain five yards when in fact he’d struggled to get back to the line of scrimmage), it features the best view of one-on-one matchups throughout the playing field. We should expect more of these shots, fog or no.
• Michaels offered a nice touch after a penalty with, “Somewhere in the gloaming is a flag.” Though gloaming specifically means dusk, so I’m not sure he used it right. Sounded good, though.
Some not-so-good offerings from NBC involving their lack of replays:
• The network seemed intent on delaying replays after quick cuts to commercials. This happened both after Marsh’s field goal block and after the Patriots’ goal-line stand. To their credit, the team did go in-depth with replays after the breaks, especially with regards to the fourth-down stop by Van Noy.
• NBC went straight to commercial and never showed the replay of Cooks making a blink-and-you-missed-it back-shoulder catch during New England’s second TD drive. Disappointing, because, as Doug Kyed pointed out in his Patriots-Falcons Film Review, the play was impossible to defend.
Overall, though, SNF had its usual, solid presentation. Back to CBS on Sunday. We’ll see if Dan Fouts and Ian Eagle can improve their performance over their effort from two weeks ago.
How ’bout some commercials? Sunday night means national ratings, which meant a few noteworthy takes by advertisers.
Food, Glorious Food? Maybe it’s my age, or maybe it’s the fact that I now understand the food I see on commercials isn’t actually edible due to what’s done to it for aesthetic purposes, but for whatever reason ad eats no longer make me hungry. Whether it’s Olive Garden’s chicken alfredo, Applebee’s steak and shrimp, or Wendy’s chicken tenders, I just don’t look at the screen and think, man, I could go for some of that right now. I feel like I used to get hungry; now, not so much.
Also, a tip for Subway: when you show the making of a turkey sandwich, try to edit out the noise of a turkey slice hitting another turkey slice, because it sounds like a wet hand clap. Just trying to help.
Her Next Portrait Will Be A Mugshot: I’ve never noticed this before, but in the iPhone 8 ad that demonstrates its Portrait Lighting mode, the young woman walks down the street, lip-synching, and – here’s the fun part – steals a hat. Simply grabs a hat from an open store rack and walks off with it. Now, show me what the vendor would look like chasing after her in Portrait Lighting, and maybe I’ll upgrade.
Breathless: Impressive commercial for the Xbox One X, with the slogan “Feel True Power.” I never really got into video games as a kid (my pal D. had an Atari and loved Jungle Hunt), but the rare times I did play, I enjoyed it. With the size of screens today and the amazing realism of these games, I can’t imagine how much time I’d spend playing these things as a teenager. I might never leave the house.
Duty Bound: I’ve been to a number of film festivals (besides plying my craft as a semi-readable sports journalist, I’m also a failed screenwriter), and if the new Call of Duty WWII commercial (“Reassemble!”) entered any one of those contests, it would have won for Best Short Film. Sharp editing and acting, as well as many doses of humor make this one of the most entertaining commercials of the year. Really well done.
No, Not Lemming – Lemmy: Or hamster. Some commercials catch your eye (and ear) despite you having no interest in the product. Hello, Kia Soul Turbo. Their use of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” as background to a chase scene where a hamster wreaks havoc escaping from a hospital nursery (yes, it’s as odd as it sounds) makes for compelling viewing. Not sure who on the Kia Soul campaign came up with the hamster theme (here’s a spot from 2010 featuring Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours”), but it’s a random connection that works. Most automobile ads get overlooked; this one’s hard to ignore.
Hey: Mixed feelings about Citibank using the Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man” in their ad, but I guess I’ve got to be fine with it given that the most evocative songs of my youth are getting pitched for just about everything now. This can result in thoughtful, engaging commercials (e.g., “Where Is My Mind?” covered by Nada Surf for Samsung) or ads where the song sounded so good that lyrics research may have gotten bypassed (iPhone’s “Gigantic” campaign). I mean, in any case, if every commercial featured a Pixies song, I’d be fine with it.
Actually, wait: would I? That’s a real King Midas conundrum, right there.
Darkness Falls Across The Land: Listen, I’m watching season two of “Stranger Things” no matter what, but the use of the song “Thriller” in the preview deserves credit. Pretty close to perfect.
The Crawling Dead: I’ve discovered something about “The Walking Dead” that has re-shaped my opinion of the show. I’m not mad at the show itself, I’m mad at the producers. So here’s my note to them: stop taking everything about this goofy, hour-long monsterfest so seriously. In interviews, the producers – always in reverential tones – say things like, “This isn’t a show about zombies,” when, in fact, it is. It’s all about zombies. You think I’d watch TWD if it only had humans? In that case, it would be called “Revolution,” and it would be cancelled.
In a preview of this season, I heard a producer say that the premiere gets “right into the action,” which seems a little farther away from the truth than Alexandria is from that secret women sea village. No spoilers, but the need to bounce back and forth between three or maybe four different timelines might point to a lack of faith in the main plot. Also, you do, in fact, have a main plot, so take care of it and get to it. I feel like viewers are looking for something to happen more than the actual characters are. There’s so much waiting around in this episode it seems like the citizens of the Kingdom need to get their licenses renewed.
Here’s a sample of dialogue from last week’s show:
Carl: There’s not going to be enough, Dad.
Rick: Enough what?
I mean… eww. Seriously, I’m supposed to look to a zombie show for inspiration in life? Stop it. Just keep blowing stuff up and piking walkers, and we’ll all be fine.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: A “Charger” is a battle-ready horse, from the Latin carcare, “to load.” So I guess the horses would get loaded up with gear? Better than a Bronco, I think.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: “Los Angeles” comes from the Spanish phrase for “City of Please Read My Script.” Or it could be “The Angels.” One of those two, I’m sure.
Curran Events: I’m still reading Chris Price’s Drive For Five, and I now have Tom E. Curran’s Relentless, Julian Edelman’s memoir, lined up as my next purchase. When I was in high school, my father helped K. C. Jones write his autobiography Rebound, so I have some idea of the effort that Tom put into this book. Probably the most well-earned “with” a writer can have next to his name.
Chargers vs. Patriots, 1 p.m. Sunday. In a season full of NFL teams evolving faster than Darwin’s finches, it will be interesting to see how much each squad transforms this week.
Chris Warner has watched that Call of Duty ad three more times since he wrote about it. He can be reached at email@example.com and @cwarn89.