BOSTON (CBS) — On paper, the Falcons were supposed to give the struggling Patriots defense its biggest challenge of the season. The secondary was especially supposed to have trouble with Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ weapons, as injuries to Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe forced special teamer Johnson Bademosi into the lineup.

Instead, Bademosi and the rest of the secondary stepped up big-time as the Falcons were held completely off the scoreboard until late in the fourth quarter of the Patriots’ 23-7 win in the Super Bowl LI rematch. Julio Jones ended up with good numbers that probably helped his fantasy teams (nine catches, 99 yards, one touchdown), but much of his production came in garbage time. Even on his late touchdown catch, he needed to out-muscle a tenacious Malcolm Butler as the corner was right in his face despite the game being well in hand.

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Bademosi played particularly well in the first half, when he was targeted just two times for one catch and a 70.9 opposing passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. The corner played 55 out of 57 snaps (96 percent), while Butler and safety Devin McCourty played them all.

Butler had a simple explanation for why the defense looked so improved on Sunday night, despite being undermanned. He used a buzz word that has popped up around the group in the first half of the season.

“Communication,” Butler said to reporters after the game. “Just playing smarter and better. That’s all.”

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Malcolm Butler breaks up a pass inteNded for Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 22, 2017. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Bademosi recorded a pass defensed against the Falcons, and it was a big one. Facing third-and-4 and needing to answer the Patriots after going down 7-0, Ryan fired a dart to Jones but the receiver couldn’t make the catch with Bademosi covering him. The corner was well aware of the importance of the situation.

“If you want to win games you have to be able to stop teams on third down, and everybody knows that,” said Bademosi. “We have to do that on defense.”

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The Patriots aren’t quite out of the woods yet on defense, as some challenging offensive matchups (Chargers, Raiders, Steelers) remain on the schedule. But Sunday night was the first indication all season that the unit is capable of playing at a championship level.