FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.
Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.
"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."
Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him.
Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes.
The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field.
The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down.
Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career-highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times.
Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction.
"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."
What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger.
There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said.
But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.
"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."
The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.
It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing.
"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more.
"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."
Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter.
Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging.
"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."
FOXBORO -- Over the Patriots’ 17-year run of excellence, the inevitability of improvement has been a constant.
No matter what’s messed up, no matter how bad it looks, the Patriots will -- almost without exception -- figure it out. There are myriad reasons for that and one of them is that they have the ultimate weapon in quarterback Tom Brady, but he isn’t the bottom-line answer to all of it. The common denominator to why they get better is trust. They buy in. The "Do Your Job” stuff gets co-opted and thrown on T-shirts and beer coozies to the point where it gets trite and worn, but the core belief that the answers they seek are attainable by the players in the room if they do what they’re asked never wavers.
They don’t ever get to a point where they wonder who they are.
PATRIOTS 23, FALCONS 7
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- Defense steps up in 'gotta have it' situations
- Butler: Defense 'just playing smarter and better'
- Jones: Falcons' comeback attempt was fogged in
- Curran's Preview/Review
- Perry: Five quick thoughts
- Curran: Best and Worst
- Felger: Falcons seemed 'desparate' and 'panicked'
The flip side of this is that -- over the same 17-year run -- the Patriots have a tendency to wreck teams.
Hours before the Patriots dismantled the already reeling Falcons, the Seattle Seahawks -- a 10-win team in each of the past two seasons since losing to the Patriots in Super Bowl 49 -- had a sideline dustup where Doug Baldwin, one of their best players and leaders, shoved offensive-line coach Tom Cable. It’s standard fare out there with an immensely talented team that routinely allows itself to devolve into a screaming, finger-pointing mess of men who all seem to believe they know what’s best and that the guy in charge doesn’t know better than they do. And they have Super Bowl 49 to thank for that.
And the same loss of identity seems to be underway in Atlanta, where the Falcons are melting from the head down in the wake of their Super Bowl 51 loss to the Patriots.
Sunday night, in the Super Bowl rematch between two teams that entered the night trying to gain a toehold, New England’s upward climb began. The Falcons, meanwhile, slipped even further from the team that had the Patriots in a chokehold in the third quarter of the Super Bowl but allowed New England to wriggle free and ruin the Falcons' psyche and confidence for the foreseeable future.
After the game, Falcons coach Dan Quinn was saying things like, "Believe in the team, like crazy. We’ve got work to do to get to our standard of ball. And we will work like crazy to do that.”
Bill Belichick, meanwhile, opened his remarks by lauding his team’s preparation.
"I'm really proud of our football team tonight,” said Belichick. "That includes everybody; guys on the practice squad, some of the guys that were inactive and of course all of the players that played and our coaching staff. I just thought they really worked hard this week. We had a very, very productive week. I thought the players were well prepared, ready to go and played hard for 60 minutes in all three phases of the game. We had a lot of contributions from everybody. We played good complementary football. It wasn’t always perfect but we played hard and we competed for 60 minutes and that was off of a real good week of work. Hats off to them. The players did a great job. They went out and played as competitively as they could and tried to play a smart game, made the adjustments, some of the adjustments that they needed to make to some things that Atlanta was doing, some looks that they gave us. [It was] a really good job by our football team tonight. I’m proud of what they did.”
There’s a saying in golf about the key to improvement: The secret is in the dirt. It means that the key isn’t talking about it or thinking about it or watching video, it’s in doing. Over and over again until it’s right and repeatable.
Through the first six games there were myriad issues the Patriots faced on both sides of the ball. Tom Brady was routinely getting bludgeoned and the Patriots' running game was inconsistent.
Sunday night -- even though Brady got banged around some -- there was further improvement and Brady consistently had room to step up and operate. The Pats were so effective on the ground (162 yards on 36 carries) that Brady threw just 29 passes -- the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time since the start of 2014 he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.
The Patriots couldn’t get control of games and couldn’t get off the field on third down earlier this year. Sunday night, they built a 17-0 lead and the Falcons were 0-for-5 on third down before halftime and 3-for-12 on third and fourth down in the game.
The Patriots consistently had secondary busts and were cutting receivers loose left and right. Six straight quarterbacks of mixed abilities had thrown for more than 300 yards against them. Sunday night there were no obvious breakdowns and Matt Ryan, the defending league MVP, threw for 233.
The Patriots had some bouts of bad tackling and front-seven play. Sunday night, they allowed 120 rushing yards and 37 of those came on Ryan scrambles.
Is everything fixed always and forever? Hardly. But to put this kind of performance together without cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Elandon Roberts -- all players who were at or near the top of the depth chart -- was remarkable. Especially against a team with the physical talent and resume of 2016 success Atlanta has.
"I thought we executed our game plan perfectly tonight,” said safety Devin McCourty. "Our coaches have been on us about just make a team make a play to beat us. You know, Julio Jones catch in the end zone, [Mohamed] Sanu’s catch on the 1-yard line -- like, those are great catches. 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. We played really well on third down, which we talked about always helps us when we play well on third down. And then tonight happened to be where we had to play plays on fourth down, and I thought we handled that well. That’s always a little different. It was just, overall, everyone understanding game plan and play-in, play-out, 11 guys on the same page.”
Getting ahead, which has been a point of emphasis the Patriots haven’t been able to satisfy, was a big part of the success, said Belichick.
"We played this game from ahead, that was a switch,” said Belichick. "We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more. We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight, so it was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run and when we needed to run we got the yards.”
There will be times, too, when the opposition plays right into your hands. Atlanta was hell-bent on getting its mojo back. It wanted to attack. The first time the Falcons rolled the dice on fourth down in the first quarter they lucked out and got nine yards on a fourth-and-seven scramble by Ryan. That drive ended with a blocked field goal.
Near the two-minute warning, set up at the Patriots 48 and trailing 10-0, the Falcons tried it again on fourth-and-six. They threw a low-percentage downfield ball to Mohamed Sanu that missed, and the Patriots took possession and cruised in to make it 17-0. It was a stupid, chest-puffing exercise in bad situational football and it backfired. So, too, was the decision to try a jet sweep on fourth down from the New England 1.
Now the Falcons have that to dwell on. Along with the blown 17-point lead last week against Miami. And the blown 25-point lead in the Super Bowl. The Falcons came into Foxboro and dug themselves deeper.
And the Patriots’ annual climb began.