By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — An offensive shootout was supposed to take place at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. But only one team participated.
The Patriots put up a respectable 23 points on Sunday night. But on a night when a high-powered and super-talented offense was expected to feast on a vulnerable defense, the Falcons managed to score just seven points.
It was a bit of a letdown from the perspective of a competitive, worthwhile football game. But it was a victory that left the Patriots feeling great about every phase of their game.
Here are the Four Ups and Four Downs. As you’ll see, the Downs were hard to come by.
The cornerback didn’t have the greatest Super Bowl in February, and he didn’t draw the toughest assignment in covering Julio Jones. But in this game, with Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore out due to injury, Butler spent much of his night covering one of the game’s best receivers. And he more than held his own.
Yes, Jones finished the night with nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown. But a significant chunk of that came in the Falcons’ lone scoring drive during garbage time.
Butler made arguably the defensive play of the game, breaking up a pass for Jones in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The Patriots then stopped the Falcons on a fourth-down run and marched 74 yards to tack on a field goal and stretch their lead to 23-0.
The Patriots’ defense has — rightfully — come under fire for at times looking like a unit unfit for the National Football League this season. That was not the case in this game.
So, credit to Matt Patricia and the defensive staff for finally putting together a game plan that worked. They limited Matt Ryan, held the Falcons to 2-for-9 on third down and 1-for-3 on fourth down, recorded a pair of sacks, and never let up. It was a long time coming for a defense that badly needed a night like this.
Mike Gillislee, James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead
The Falcons entered the game having shown some vulnerabilities in their run defense and in their defense of running backs in the passing game. Those flaws held true.
The quartet of Patriots running backs ran 31 times for 157 yards. Lewis led the way with 76 yards on 13 carries, but overall this was exactly what Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels envisioned when they assembled this backfield.
White also had five catches for 28 yards and a touchdown, with Burkhead hauling in an 11-yard recpetion and Lewis catching one for six yards.
When all four backs are healthy and running hard, it’s going to be difficult for any defense to deal with them.
The “what if?” game can plague any postgame thoughts on any Sunday, but you have to wonder how the game might have changed if not for Cassius Marsh’s effort play to block an Atlanta field goal late in the first quarter.
Marsh swam through the Falcons’ line, twisted his body just right to slide through and got his hand on Matt Bryant’s kick, keeping the game tied at 0-0 and giving a boost to the home team and the home crowd. It was a game-changing play.
Honorable Mention: Tom Brady
Decent little night for Tom, who went 21-for-29 for a modest 249 yards and two touchdowns with no picks. He was bailed out by a well-earned roughing the passer penalty on a very bad end zone interception, but he’ll likely haunt the nightmares of several Falcons defenders for days (years?) to come.
The linebacker is absolutely critical to the Patriots’ defense, yet he left in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury. He’s already missed time with a knee injury this year, and the defense certainly struggled without him.
Hightower didn’t return after the injury, but the game was also well in hand. The Patriots have to hope it’s minor.
Gene Steratore’s Crew
The game started with absolutely no pace, thanks to an over-eager officiating crew. And it wasn’t just the penalties, per se, as much as it was the 30-second meetings to determine exactly what to call. The fog was challenging enough; the officiating made it a difficult product to consume.
That being said, the Patriots did commit a number of obvious penalties, and the total of eight penalties for 65 yards wasn’t ideal for them.
(Note: The original version of this story accidentally referenced Tony Corrente instead of Gene Steratore.)
Speaking of the fog … what was that? Half of the people in the stadium couldn’t see anything in the second half, and many viewers at home struggled along with them.
There have been many games in this stadium since 2002, but nothing like that has happened before. Wild stuff.
He’s not on the Patriots, but in the theme of things that worked to ruin the viewing experience of a good football game, his decision to go for it on a fourth-and-6 at the New England 47-yard line with 2:00 left before halftime was indefensible.
His team trailed just 10-0 at the time. If they punted and pinned New England deep, the odds were in Atlanta’s favor to keep the score right where it was before receiving the ball to start the second half. Instead, Matt Ryan heaved a prayer in the general direction of Mohamed Sanu. After the incompletion, Brady led the Patriots on a rapid 53-yard drive to stretch that lead to 17-0 and essentially stick a dagger in the Falcons’ chances and the hope of a competitive football game being played.