Patriots

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

Patriots put on another killer performance against Falcons

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

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.

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Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

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Prototypical Patriots: Daniels, Wynn would build on interior strength

The outlook for the Patriots on the interior of their offensive line is good. They have three young players who have played a lot of football together all set to return in 2018: guard Joe Thuney, guard Shaq Mason and center David Andrews. Their depth looks solid as well. Ted Karras has two years in the system under his belt, and Cole Croston -- who has some versatility to play tackle or guard -- enters his second year in the program after spending all of his rookie season protected on the active roster.

So why even look at the incoming class of centers and guards?

ESPN's Mike Reiss reported that the Patriots were interested in drafting an interior offensive lineman -- almost a Logan Mankins clone from a size and athleticism perspective -- at pick No. 72 in last year's draft: Dan Feeney of Indiana. Instead, he was drafted at No. 71 by the Chargers. The Patriots ended up trading out of the pick when Feeney was gone.

Even with three young starters set to return last spring, Bill Belichick and his staff weren't afraid to add depth on the inside. The same has to be assumed once again this year, especially with Mason scheduled to hit free agency after the season.

PROTOTYPICAL PATRIOTS - Previously in the series:


For this exercise, we'll assume Quenton Nelson is out of New England's reach. He'd be a clear fit at guard, and he's one of the cleanest prospects in the class regardless of position. He should be gone inside the top 10 picks. We also won't include Oregon's Tyrell Crosby, Texas' Connor Williams or Auburn's Braden Smith, who some have projected to make the move inside. We included that trio in our tackles edition, but the Patriots could take any of them with the idea in mind that they should shift to guard. 

PROTOTYPES IN RANGE

JAMES DANIELS, IOWA, 6-3, 306 POUNDS
There may not be a better offensive line fit for New England in this draft. He's big enough, and his athleticism is eye-opening (30.5-inch vertical, 108-inch broad jump). He also happened to play under Kirk Ferentz in college so Daniels' transition to New England's scheme and style of play should be a relatively smooth one. Factor in the play Daniels showed on tape, and the Patriots will be interested. Unfortunately for them, there's a good chance another club is just as interested and willing to spend an early pick on the player widely considered the top center in the draft. Daniels' college teammate Sean Welsh could be a late-round (or undrafted) choice if he's deemed athletic enough. 

ISAIAH WYNN, GEORGIA, 6-3, 313 POUNDS

Wynn's hand size might be an issue since it's a full inch smaller (8 1/2 inches) than what the Patriots have typically sought in their interior line draft picks. But his arm length is 33 1/2 inches, which is more than good enough. And most importantly, his tape his tremendous. To do what he did in the SEC, small hands or not, should get him drafted in the first round. Some even believe he could stick at his last college position (he played guard and, most recently, tackle for the Bulldogs) and stick on the outside at his size. He was that good. 

FRANK RAGNOW, ARKANSAS, 6-5, 312 POUNDS

Former Arkansas coach Brett Bielema has been spotted wearing Patriots gear during the pre-draft process as he's been helping Belichick's staff with their scouting. One player he already knows very well would be Ragnow, who is considered by some to be one of the most underrated players in the draft. He's in the conversation with Daniels and Price as the best center in the class, and Pro Football Focus would argue that he is the best. His three-cone was oddly slow, but otherwise he's a good athlete who's had a lot of experience against top-notch competition in the SEC.

BILLY PRICE, OHIO STATE, 6-4, 305 POUNDS
Another very good center here. Another coaching connection for the Patriots. Price might've had a shot at being the first pivot off the board in this draft, but he injured his pec doing the bench press at this year's combine. If that injury forces him to slide to the Patriots in the second round, he could be deemed a value pick there.



AUSTIN CORBETT, NEVADA, 6-4, 306 POUNDS
Good length, big mitts, very solid athlete. Corbett is one of the best fits for the Patriots on the interior if they want to go in that direction. His 5.15-second 40 and 28-inch vertical will more than meet the mark for the Patriots, as will his 106-inch broad jump. His three-cone time (7.87 seconds) won't blow Belichick away, but it won't be enough to take him off of the board, either. 

WILL HERNANDEZ, UTEP, 6-2, 327 POUNDS
Hernandez is a little undersized, but he's a mauler in an age where linemen are generally more experienced in the pass game than the run game. When it comes to the measurables, his height (an inch shorter than what the Patriots usually like) and his vertical (24 inches) are less than ideal, but he's considered by many experts to be a first-round talent.

WYATT TELLER, VIRGINIA TECH, 6-4, 314 POUNDS

Teller is another fit from an athletic standpoint since his 40 time (5.24 seconds), vertical (29 inches), broad (114 inches) and three-cone (7.45 seconds) were all good. His play dipped in 2017, according to some experts, but if the Patriots believe he's a good option late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, he could be available. 

SCOTT QUESSENBERRY, UCLA, 6-4, 310 POUNDS

Everyone is talking about UCLA tackle Kolton Miller as the draft approaches, but Quessenberry deserves a little pub himself. He checks all the athletic markers the Patriots look for, and he started for almost four full years in a Power 5 conference. His experience, his versatility to play guard or center, and his movement skills could have the Patriots interested on Day 3. 

MASON COLE, MICHIGAN, 6-4, 305 POUNDS

Cole may not be as explosive as some others in this draft class (23.5-inch vertical), but he's coming from a pro style offense where he was a starter for four years at both left tackle and center. He's not the kind of specimen that will be drafted in the top-100, in all likelihood, but he's an interesting Day 3 option. 

ROD TAYLOR, OLE MISS, 6-3, 320 POUNDS

Taylor is on the heavy side compared to interior linemen the Patriots have drafted in the past, but he's an explosive athlete for his size (30.5-inch vertical, 99-inch broad), and he has experience at tackle. If the Patriots feel like Taylor can play multiple spots, or if they feel like he'd be an even better athlete if he loses some weight, they may be intrigued enough to spend a pick on the SEC product late.  

KJ MALONE, LSU, 6-4, 303 POUNDS

No surprise that NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone's son would meet the athletic testing numbers to compete at the next level. He was by no means a dominant tackle for the Tigers, but he could be a late-round interior option for the Patriots if they like his potential. Malone's teammate at LSU, Will Clapp, might be an even better fit given his size (6-5, 314), his position flexibility, and his reputation as a player with very strong intangibles.  Q1

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Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

Gronkowski says 'no' to optional workouts in strange press conference

FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski held a strange press conference on Saturday, which he attended in full Supercross gear. Even for the goofy Patriots tight end, that's a little odd.

But what made it even more head-scratching is that the presser occurred inside Gillette Stadium, about a 15-second walk away from the Patriots weight room, which Gronkowski steered clear of last week during the team's first few voluntary workouts of the offseason. 

Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran described Tom Brady and Gronkowski's absence from the workouts as part of an "open revolt" earlier this week. Gronkowski's presence in the building Saturday didn't have the feel of a peace offering. 

Told that fans would wonder why Gronkowski was able to make it to One Patriot Place for a Supercross event and not for workouts -- workouts which are traditionally extremely well-attended in Foxboro -- he cracked, "Training for this dirt-biking."

Asked if he planned on attending optional workouts that are upcoming, he answered, "No." He then added, "I've got dirt-biking skills to work on."

After avoiding a few questions on the topic of whether or not he would return to the Patriots in 2018, Gronkowski did seem to hint that he planned to play football next season, drawing laughter from a crowd that included Gronkowski's father, one of his brothers and multiple friends, including former Patriots Stevan Ridley and Rob Ninkovich.

How much weight should be put into comments made by Gronkowski during a press conference that was, essentially, one long promotional joke? Debatable. But the fact that he was willing to show up to the place he avoided during the week, then have a good laugh about his future with the team that he's captained the last two seasons? That might not sit very well with those who are looking ahead to the upcoming season and wondering about the All-Pro tight end's plans.

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