Belichick’s Hand-Picked Players Starting To Figure It Out And Other Leftover Patriots Thoughts

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — You just shouldn’t enter a Sunday expecting the Patriots to lose. It almost never works out.

And with regard to Sunday evening’s home meeting with the Falcons, how could anybody possibly have felt good about the Patriots’ chances? With a New England defense that’s been unable to stymie Josh McCown and Alex Smith and Cam Newton at all this year, and an Atlanta offense that’s as talented as any, and with injuries to two Patriots cornerbacks, every arrow was pointed in the direction of a night where Matt Ryan and Co. scored at will on national TV in Foxboro.

As it turns out, we overlooked some things.

For one, we overlooked how mentally wrecked the Falcons are, thanks to the events of Feb. 5, 2017. They’re not over it. From foolish decisions to go for it on fourth down, to allowing a blocked field goal and missing another, to bad execution on both sides of the ball, to idiotic penalties that negated turnovers, the Falcons did it all on Sunday night. They were a mess.

We also underestimated how poor of a job Steve Sarkisian is doing in taking over for Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator. With largely the same group, the Falcons went from scoring an NFL-best 33.8 points per game in 2016 to just 21 points per game in 2017. They gained 415.8 yards per game last year. This year, they’ve gained 372.5. Matt Ryan went from a dominant MVP season to an 89.3 rating in 2017. The most significant change from last year to this year has been the OC, and the results have not been there.

But most of all, we underestimated the fact that eventually, Bill Belichick’s teams tend to figure things out. That by no means is to suggest that the Patriots will suddenly boast a top-five defense. If this team is to reach its goal of another Super Bowl, it will do so by being an offense-first team.

Yet look at who made the plays in this one.

Malcolm Butler once again looked like a No. 1 cornerback.

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Kyle Van Noy celebrates his fourth-down tackle vs. the Falcons. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Kyle Van Noy, the guy whom Belichick acquired last year and re-signed this year and was not considered by many to be a starting-worthy NFL linebacker, made a tackle for a five-yard loss to cap off a goal line stand.

Cassius Marsh, who looked utterly lost on the field in Week 1 after being acquired by Belichick days earlier, efforted his way through the line to block a field goal and prevent the Falcons from taking a lead.

Adam Butler, an undrafted rookie, muscled his way to the quarterback for a huge 10-yard sack in the second quarter.

Johnson Bademosi, thrust into a starting role in the absence of Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe, held his own.

Even David Harris, the man who’s barely even been on the Patriots this year, made a pair of solo tackles in place of the injured Elandon Roberts.

You look at the defense as a whole, you see all of the new parts, and you understand that sometimes, things take time. And while nobody should believe that a near-shutout of a mentally ravaged Falcons team means the Patriots have figured everything out defensively, the output is still encouraging. It also follows a three-week trend that has seen things round into form a bit on that side of the ball.

Realistically, the Patriots don’t need a top-10 defense to be a Super Bowl contender. They just need to climb out of the very bottom of the league rankings and join the middle of the pack. Sunday’s showing demonstrated that they are capable.

And now, on to the many leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 23-7 win over the Falcons.

–The Stupid Play Of The Game Award goes to … (drumroll please) … Adrian Clayborn! Come on down and accept your prize. Yes, Adrian, your team was fortunate enough to be present for one of the very worst passes of Tom Brady’s career, and you guys benefited with an interception in your own end zone! Points off the board! Possession changed! A huge moment for the Atlanta Falcons!

Oh, but no. You decided it would be wise to use your helmet to hit Tom Brady in the ear hole.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

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Maybe Gene Steratore wouldn’t be looking at the single biggest star quarterback in the NFL and you’d get away with hit. Worth a shot, right?!

Equally as impressive as the penalty itself was Clayborn’s ability to play 32 defensive snaps without registering anything on the snap sheet except for the 15-yard penalty and another penalty for encroachment.

–Runners-up for the Stupid Play of The Game include: Dan Quinn going for it on fourth-and-6 at midfield in the second quarter, and Sarkisian dialing up a jet sweep on fourth-and-goal from the 1.

–I’ll be honest with you: I’ve never been a huge “28-3” guy. The whole celebration of the Patriots trailing by 25 points in the Super Bowl never quite tickled me the way it did many. The Patriots comeback and corresponding Falcons collapse were unbelievable, of course, but I never fully grasped the concept of wearing a T-shirt that boasted, “My favorite team played so poorly in the Super Bowl that they trailed by 25 points with a short amount of time left to play.” But I’ve understood the celebration of the comeback.

Anyway, that’s all to set up the fact that I was tickled by this banner hanging over the end zone wall, seen during the second play of the game:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

It’s honestly kind of difficult to not think about your historic blown lead in the Super Bowl when it’s literally hovering over you as you try to play defense. Well done to those fans. Nice banner usage.

–You know what I like? Athletic feats. Love ’em. You show me an athletic feat? Buddy, I’m watching that thing.

So I was particularly impressed on the Patriots’ second offensive drive, when Tom Brady recovered quickly after getting smoked from his blind side by the speeding freight train that was De’Vondre Campbell:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

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Tom Brady gets sacked by De’Vondre Campbell.. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Brady took that hit, got up, calmly talked with his line about how he’d rather not have that happen anymore, led the huddle, and then dropped this dime to Rob Gronkowski for 40 yards. Brady uncorked from his 14-yard line:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

And Gronkowski made the catch, fully extended, at the Falcons’ 43-yard line:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

It was beautiful with a capital UTIFAL.

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Rob Gronkowski (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Of course the completion didn’t count because Gronkowski got his hand on Duke Riley, drawing a ticky-tack OPI penalty. But we all know what we witnessed there. And it was something else.

–In terms of Gronkowski catches that did count, he made a play on a third-and-8 in the second quarter that few people on the planet can make. Most quarterbacks don’t even bother throwing to a target who’s bracketed in coverage by a linebacker and a safety 20-something yards down the field.

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But most quarterbacks don’t have Gronkowski. So Brady put it in exactly the right spot, Gronkowski looked it in to his Hamburger Helper mitts …

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… controlled the ball, and got his feet down despite being hit down low and up high by the two defenders …

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And it was all while running at full speed.

A stat line of three catches for 51 yards doesn’t necessarily fly off the page with Gronkowski. But his rare abilities were on display.

He also got to tackle someone half his size on the negated interception, which seemed like a blast for him:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

–A few noteworthy things happened on Adam Butler’s sack. First and foremost, the rookie out of Vanderbilt, bullied his way past right guard Wes Schweitzer. That was good. Next, the rookie displayed a euphoric sack celebration that can only be described as an out-of-body experience.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

And lastly, the Gillette Stadium speakers BLASTED the 2002 smash hit “Move B**ch” by rapper and recording artist Chris “Ludacris” Bridges.

Some sacks are just window dressing for the stats pages. Other sacks impact games in significant ways. Butler’s first career sack falls in the latter.

–The decision itself to go for it on fourth-and-6 with 2 minutes left in the first half was bad enough. But the play call and lack of execution made it so much worse.

You come out of the two-minute warning, and the best you can draw up is … a deep corner throw to Mohamed Sanu? Hoping for pass interference maybe?

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Not even close. Terrible.

–Here was everyone’s second-half view who sat higher than the lower bowl:

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A high-tension power line is fog-covered near Oesterode, northern Germany. (Photo by Hauke-Christian Dittrich/AFP/Getty Images)

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Burj Khalifa during a heavy fog in Dubai (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

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A cable car in a dense mist in Genting Highlands, outside Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images)

It was the weirdest football game I’ve ever seen.

–The fog did produce some WILD images that look like art.

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Mohamed Sanu (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

It also turned people who ran through the on-screen graphics into weird video game zombies:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

–Maybe the Patriots’ most beautiful play of the night — an 18-yard back-shoulder pass to Brandin Cooks — got almost no mention at all on the broadcast. That’s because the Patriots called timeout after the play, and the game went to a commercial break.

Fortunately, there’s no commercial break here. So we’re going to look at it.

Here you can see Cooks running up the field, single-covered by Robert Alford. He’s still running up the field when Brady releases the ball.

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Cooks stops on a dime, spins, pushes off ever-so-slightly, and makes the catch while spinning away from the defender.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

The timing and precision of that play was a marvel to behold. Brady and Cooks made it look like a throw from the practice fields in mid-August with the way they executed it with ease.

–For a bevy of reasons, this was an obscene use of on-field graphics.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

I imagine the rating in Atlanta dropped to 0.0 at that point.

–Malcolm Butler’s PBU in the end zone was underrated. Jones had a step on him running along the back line of the end zone. Ryan threw on the run.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Now, Ryan did a terrible job of leading the receiver, instead throwing more to Jones’ gut than the space in front of him. But credit goes to Butler, who closed the ground in one step to get his arm across Jones’ chest to swat it away.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Great play. Also underrated: How much taller Deatrich Wise is than Butler:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

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Just something to think about if the Patriots ever have to play basketball against anyone.

–Do you know what I like about Dion Lewis? Of course you don’t; you don’t even know me. But I will tell you, it’s this: the man is shifty and fast and deceptive and he can jump-cut like no other … but he’ll also pull a Marshawn and run through an MFer’s face.

Early in the second quarter he slipped through a tight hole in the line at full speed and burst up the middle for 15 yards. At that point, he had a choice to make: try to make safety Ricardo Allen miss a tackle, or run right through his sternum.

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

He chose B:

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And he charged through the man for seven extra yards:

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(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

This came a week after Lewis fought his way into the end zone on a power run from the 1-yard line. At 5-foot-8, he doesn’t look like your typical tough runner. But Dion Lewis is a bit of a beast.

–One major benefit of the fog was how it forced NBC to use different broadcast angles. I know many sports viewers lose their minds if the sport on the TV doesn’t look the way it always looks, but I’m a proponent of mixing it up. And when this game went to the cable camera behind the line of scrimmage, you got to see how easy life can be for Tom Brady when you play a simple zone against him.

I mean, you have to make it harder than this for him, guys:

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Brady got that look by motioning Danny Amendola (who was stacked behind Cooks in the left slot) across the formation to the right side. The Falcons adjusted, but before they could really get set, Brady was taking the snap.

That one went for 27 yards, but if Brady threw a better pass to Cooks at his outside shoulder instead of his shoe tops, it could have easily gone for a 77-yard touchdown.

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And it was nice to be able to see how it happened in real time, without relying on a replay.

–It’s definitely been a weird season already, but the Patriots are 5-2, tied for the best record in the conference, in the position they should be, rounding into form as the weather starts to turn colder. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom Brady and Matthew Slater, the two longest-tenured non-kickers on the roster, celebrated by looking exactly like you and your buddy Pat do when you stumble out of a tavern at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

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Tom Brady, Matthew Slater (Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images)

“No, no — NO! I mean it, man. I’m not just saying it. I love you, man!”

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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