FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It took a foggy night in Foxborough for the New England Patriots (5-2) to play what was quite clearly their best game of the year.
After nearly two months of defensive struggles leading to ugly games that came down to the wire as opposing passers put up record numbers, head coach Bill Belichick's team used a complementary effort from all three phases to dispatch Matt Ryan's Falcons (3-3) in a Super Bowl LI rematch that not only didn't live up to the hype but wasn't even as close as the final 23-7 score might indicate.
The Patriots admitted they heard the intense criticism of their rocky start with a three-game winning streak, but they now feel there is positive momentum building for the defending champions. They are still very much in the mix as one of the top contenders in what has already been an up-and-down 2017 season across the NFL.
"I thought everyone was really focused and everyone did a great job of really honing in on what we needed to do," quarterback Tom Brady said after the win, seemingly as content following a game as he has been all season. "The D kept making plays and we kept going out there and chipping away. You know, we didn't score as many touchdowns as we'd like, but we scored enough. It was a great team win."
Ryan threw for just 233 yards and didn't find the end zone until a contested Julio Jones 1-yard score with a little more than four minutes to play and the game seemingly in hand. New England's 32nd-ranked pass defense held Atlanta to no third-down conversions in the first half and just 2-of-9 overall. There weren't the usual opposing receivers running wide open in the back end, nor were there the big plays that have haunted New England all year. Ryan completed just one pass longer than 20 yards.
"Our coaches have been on us about just make a team make a play to beat us," Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty said. "I thought we competed and made them earn every yard. When you go against good teams, that's what you have to do. We made enough plays."
Add in a couple short Brady touchdown passes and a Cassius Marsh blocked field-goal attempt in the early going and you had the recipe for a well-rounded win that was easily New England's most dominant of the year.
Belichick endlessly preaches the need for 60 minutes of complementary football and that's what he got for the first time as the defending champions near the midway point of the season. Obviously, the Patriots hadn't played bad football, but there was a lacking consistency and breadth to their execution.
"I thought Bill said it best this week. He said it was about time we played complementary football for four quarters," McCourty added. "He said at times, we played really well on offense. At times, we played really well on defense. At times, we played really well on special teams, but we hadn't gotten it all together. I thought (Sunday night) we did a good job of that."
After three previous home games in which New England lost to the Chiefs and Panthers while needing last-second Brady heroics to beat the Texans, the Patriots regained some of their usual home-field advantage, and it had nothing to do with the foggy conditions.
"For 60 minutes we were all focused and into it," Brady said in his weekly Monday morning interview with WEEI Radio in Boston. "Coach talked about the things we needed to do all week and I thought we did a good job executing those things. It was a good team. We had dropped a couple at home and it was a big game for us. I am glad we took care of business."
While preparing to host the suddenly-hot Chargers on Sunday prior to a bye week and a more difficult second-half schedule that includes trips to Denver and Mexico City to take on the Raiders among five road games in a six-game stretch, Brady knows the time is now to keep the positive momentum rolling.
"This is now when it really starts to feel more like football season," Brady told WEEI. "The shine in the season has worn off a little bit. The hopes are all probably more tempered with reality. Now you really see what you are made of. We're getting to the halfway point and this is when we have to start learning from all of our mistakes. Hopefully, we've worked hard to make some improvements and we really have to start playing better football as we go down the stretch here."
For those in the stands or press box at Gillette Stadium, the fog in Foxborough made for tough viewing Sunday night in the win over the Falcons. It was also an issue for NBC's TV cameras as they did their best to bring the action to viewers at home.
But the fog, which was at its worst in the second half, didn't seem to bother the players actually on the field.
"That fog was pretty crazy," tight end Rob Gronkowski said. "I mean, I've never seen anything like that or played in anything like that, but, I mean, a deep ball up in the air was definitely more difficult (to see). But, it didn't change anything in the game."
"The fog -- that was crazy," quarterback Tom Brady echoed. "I have never seen that. It was just so still out there. The fog had no place to go. I don't think it affected much, really, at the end of the day. I'm sure it looked cool on TV, though."
One thing it did affect, though, was the coaches' ability to watch the tape of the New England win.
"It affected us a lot this morning," head coach Bill Belichick said with a chuckle on his Monday conference call with the local media, "because it's hard to see the game. The fourth quarter is -- I don't know -- pretty close to a white-out on the sideline film.
"The first half, start of the third quarter, it's all right. As they get into the middle of the third quarter and on, for those of us with aging eyes, it's a little strained to see it, and then there's a point where you can't really see it at all, especially from the sideline."
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater later said that New England's video staff actually began to film the Gillette Stadium video board rather than the on-field action because it offered a clearer view.
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy had one of the key defensive plays in Sunday night's win over the Falcons. Atlanta ran a curious jet sweep on fourth-and-goal from the Patriots 1 trailing 20-0 very early in the fourth quarter. Van Noy, who led New England with seven solo tackles in the victory, snuffed out the speed-motion run that was coming right at him and tackled wide receiver Taylor Gabriel to all but close the door on Atlanta's comeback hopes.
"Kyle made a great play, made a very instinctive play," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "That play is really dangerous if they can just hit it on the outside and then you have no way to catch them. Kyle's awareness and the quickness with which he got outside with all of the traffic so that he could kind of have a clear shot to come up the field was a real heads-up play on his part."
Belichick went on to praise Van Noy's evolution in the New England defense since arriving via trade from the Lions in the middle of last season. Van Noy has now started each of the first seven games of the year for the Patriots and is second on the team with 49 tackles.
"Kyle has been a very durable player. He's out there every day. He gets better, works hard every day," Belichick said. "He's able to do more and he wants to do more. He's the type of player that wants more responsibility and likes the challenges of doing different things: coverage, pass rush, playing the run, playing on the line, playing off the line. His hard work has paid off in a lot of opportunity and a lot of production in a number of different areas."
Linebacker Harvey Langi and his wife, Cassidy, have been released from the hospital and have returned home more than a week removed from an Oct. 13 car accident in Foxborough that left both with serious injuries. Langi is currently listed on the Patriots injury report as having a back injury, though a video on social media showed him walking with crutches with his right knee immobilized. His wife is reportedly dealing with fractures to both hips as well as broken ribs.
According to the Boston Herald, 25-year-old Kevin Conroy was behind the wheel of the car that rear-ended the Langis and is facing multiple charges, including drug and alcohol-related offenses.
Langi is an undrafted rookie out of BYU who's played in just one game this season.
NOTES: CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion/ankle) was ruled out on Friday's injury report, missing his second straight game after sitting out practice all week. ... CB Eric Rowe (groin) missed his third straight game and fourth out of five with the injury that still has him walking with a significant limp and unable to get on the practice field. ... LB Harvey Langi (back) missed his second straight game and did not practice last week following a car accident on Oct. 13 that sent him and his wife to the hospital for multiple days. ... LB Elandon Roberts (ankle) missed his first game of the season after missing practice last Wednesday and Thursday to the injury. He returned to the practice field on a limited basis to close out the week but was unable to play against Atlanta. ... OL Cameron Fleming was a healthy scratch for the second straight game and third time overall this season. ... OL Cole Croston, an undrafted rookie, was inactive against the Falcons, the seventh straight game he's been a healthy scratch to open his NFL career. ... DL Geneo Grissom was a healthy scratch against the Falcons, the first time he's been inactive since joining the roster from the practice squad for Week 3. ... DT Malcom Brown left the first half of Sunday night's win over Atlanta with an ankle injury and did not return. The third-year former first-round pick has never missed a game in his two-plus seasons in New England. ... RB Rex Burkhead (ribs) returned after missing four-plus weeks to injury, showing nice burst on a handful of carries. ... LB David Harris, who'd played just seven snaps all season and hadn't played a down in the previous three games, started against Atlanta, played 19 snaps in the win and tallied three tackles. ... LB Dont'a Hightower left the third quarter of Sunday night's win with what was announced as a shoulder injury and did not return. ... WR Chris Hogan, who has been dealing with a rib injury, walked off the field with trainers in the second half against Atlanta and spent some time with the staff in the medical tent on the sideline. Hogan did return to action to close out the game.
REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Tom Brady threw a season-low 29 passes, only 11 in the second half, completing 21 of them for a season-low 249 yards on the way to the controlled victory. He threw a pair of short touchdown passes, including a little toss on what goes down as an 11-yard completion on what was essentially a jet sweep to Brandin Cooks. Brady had some good fortune recovering his own fumble on a De'Vondre Campbell strip-sack and seeing an interception in the end zone wiped out by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Adrian Clayborn in the second quarter. Still, a 121.2 passer rating against the defending NFC champs is nothing to sneeze at. RB James White, who had 14 catches against Atlanta in Super Bowl LI, had a team-high five catches for just 28 yards, including a 2-yard touchdown. Cooks had four catches for 65 yards, including the score. Chris Hogan added four grabs for 71 yards, including a key 20-yarder on third-and-16 to extend a drive that ended in the Cooks score. It wasn't a high-flying performance for the potent Patriots attack, but it was more than enough for the win.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- Controlling the score and the game, New England was able to run it more than it threw it for the first time this season. Removing three Brady kneel-downs to end the game, the Patriots ran it a combined 33 times for 165 yards for a season-best 5.0-yard average, the fourth straight game New England was over 4 yards per carry as a team. Dion Lewis led the Patriots in rushing yards for the third straight game, tallying season highs with 13 rushes for 76 yards, including a 25-yard long. Rex Burkhead returned from injury to give the ground game an early boost with six carries for 31 yards, including three 9-yard runs on a second-quarter drive to a field goal. New England ran early to balance out the offense and then was able to run consistently to milk the clock with a three-score lead for most of the second half. The Patriots closed the door on Falcons comeback dreams with five straight runs for 32 yards and two first downs to end the game in four-minute offense mode as Atlanta burned its final two timeouts.
--PASS DEFENSE: A -- New England's 32nd-ranked pass defense put forth easily its best performance of the season despite playing without two of its top cornerbacks (Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe) against Matt Ryan and Co. After allowing six straight opponents to top 300 yards passing to open the season, the Patriots eliminated the wide-open receivers and endless big plays against Atlanta. Ryan completed 23 of 33 passes for 233 yards with a touchdown for a 99.7 rating, though that was inflated a bit by a late drive that led to a Julio Jones 1-yard score. Ryan had just 110 passing yards in the first half and New England held Atlanta to 0-for-5 on third downs in the first two quarters. Jones had a relatively quiet nine catches for 99 yards and the score on which he snared a would-be interception out of Malcolm Butler's hands to avoid the shutout. Mohamed Sanu added six catches for 65 yards but it was Justin Hardy with a 22-yard grab, on the late drive, who had the only reception longer than 20 yards. Johnson Bademosi, a special teamer only in the first five weeks, again started in place of Gilmore and competed well, as did second-year player Jonathan Jones. Butler and the safeties showed much improved communication in a lot of two-deep zone looks. There wasn't a ton of pressure up front as Ryan was sacked just once, but the coverage didn't seem to need it on this impressive night that was a major step forward for what had been by far New England's biggest weakness through six weeks.
--RUSH DEFENSE: C -- After its best performance of the year a week earlier in New York, New England's run defense took a little step back against Atlanta. Though 37 of the Falcons' 120 yards came on three Ryan scrambles, Devonta Freeman still found enough room to work with 12 carries for 72 yards and a 6-yard average, though much of that came with the Patriots holding a three-score lead in the second half and willing to let Atlanta run. New England came up with the biggest run stop of the night on Taylor Gabriel's fourth-down jet sweep on the goal line that was snuffed out by Kyle Van Noy for a 5-yard loss, one of seven solo tackles on the night for the linebacker. Atlanta didn't try to run much on the edges, an area the Falcons hit with their speed in the Super Bowl. Overall, the New England run defense was enough of a complementary factor in the victory.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- New England's field-goal block set an early tone and excited Bill Belichick when Cassius Marsh blocked Matt Bryant's 37-yard attempt to keep the game scoreless in the first quarter. Bryant also missed a 36-yard attempt later in the third quarter. Meanwhile, New England's Stephen Gostkowski hit all three of his attempts from 29, 21 and 38 yards. Gostkowski also did a solid job with his usual high, short kickoffs at the goal line to try and pin the Falcons in, keeping them inside the 20 three times on kickoffs. Ryan Allen punted only twice, including the Patriots' first possession, leading to a 57-yarder for a touchback, not what New England was looking for. Danny Amendola handled Atlanta's late onside kick attempt cleanly, but the Patriots got nothing out of the return game all night. Still, the blocked kick and execution on their field goals were key on the way to the win.
--COACHING: A -- Belichick's team put forth its most complete, balanced performance of the season with major contributions in all three phases. The pass defense was solid in its communication and the use of many two-deep looks ended the big plays opponents had been piling up all season. Offensively, New England ran the ball more and more successfully, taking pressure off the passing attack as well as the defense. And in the kicking game, a recent focus in practice on field-goal block paid off against Atlanta. Through scheme, faith and apparently the proper motivation, Belichick and his staff seem to be righting the ship for a team that's seemed on the precipice of confidence issues at various points. Belichick and Co. pushed all the right buttons this week leading up to and through Sunday night's win.