They brought their 'A' game
Each week,we put together this report card based on a variety of inputs. There's our takeaways upon viewing the previous weekend's game live. There's what we can gather in conversations with players and coaches after the fact. And there's the "all-22" coaches film.
That last piece wasn't all that useful this week, at least when it came to what happened in the third and fourth quarters. The fog that hovered over Gillette Stadium for the entirety of the night got particularly bad late. Not necessarily for the players but for the cameras filming them from high above.
Still, between what we heard after the game, and what we saw from the television copy we gathered enough to know that the Patriots deserve their share of high marks for beating up on Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Click through for all the grades, position by position.
When your worst throw of the night -- and maybe your worst throw of the season -- is wiped out due to a penalty, you know it's your night. That's exactly what happened when Tom Brady completely missed Robert Alford in coverage, threw across the field and was picked off. A roughing-the-passer penalty bailed Brady out, and the Patriots took advantage. Two plays later, Brady dropped one off to a motioning Brandin Cooks for an 11-yard score that went in the books as a pass. Brady had other misfires -- he threw behind Chris Hogan on a pair of completions and he missed Rob Gronkowski on consecutive throws in the second quarter -- but none were back-breakers. He was apparently responsible for the blindside sack he absorbed, and on the second sack he took, he held onto the ball for about four seconds. But those plays didn't do in the Patriots offense, either. His touchdown throw to James White near the goal line, pump-faking to the right to move safety Keanu Neal and then coming back to the left to find his back, was pretty. His third-down conversion on a corner-route to Gronkowski was perfectly placed near the sideline, and his 27-yarder to Cooks up the seam (through the fog) helped keep his diminutive receiver from being drilled by the oncoming safety. Brady moved deftly in the pocket all night, buying himself time when he needed, and he even picked up a pair of first downs with his legs. He got a good block from White to keep him safe on the first, and the second came on a sneak late in the game to bleed the clock when the Falcons somehow thought it would be a good ideal to leave about a two-yard opening between center David Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason. Too easy.
RUNNING BACK: B+
James White continues to be one of the most dependable players the Patriots have in the passing game. He caught all five of his targets, including a low strike from Brady near the goal line for a score. Rex Burkhead gave this group a spark for the first time since Week 2, running with good power and vision, which was particularly noticeable on a nine-yard run in the second quarter when he picked up a key block from Shaq Mason. Mike Gillislee carried eight times and was stuffed near the line of scrimmage on three -- including one at the goal line where it looked like his blocking let him down. He ran hard during the fourth quarter, though helping milk the clock. On one carry, Gillislee planted linebacker Deion Jones on his back for seven and a first down. Dion Lewis was the team's best runner yet again, picking up 5.8 yards per carry (76 yards on 13 attempts). The highlight was how he somehow escaped both Derrick Shelby (280 pounds) and Dontari Poe (346) to pick up 13 yards, icing the game.
WIDE RECEIVER: B
Chris Hogan laid out Deion Jones on a crack toss play early on that didn't go anywhere, but . . . man. Hogan also made a pair of nice grabs on throws behind him, which seems to be a weekly occurrence. Hogan had one drop. He also spent some time being evaluated for a concussion, and he seemed to land hard on his shoulder after a long play-action catch-and-run. He's one of New England's most reliable offensive weapons and so his health bears watching moving forward. Danny Amendola also had a drop in this one, and he was one of three potential pass-catchers who seemed to have a communication issue in the red zone as all three -- Hogan and Rob Gronkowski were also involved -- ended up in the same spot and it was difficult to know where Brady's pass was intended. Brandin Cooks had yet another productive day, working the back-shoulder throw with Brady to perfection on a couple of occasions. He finished with four catches for 65 yards on five targets and a jet-sweep touchdown "catch" and run.
TIGHT END: B-
Rob Gronkowski had just three catches but made a good effort play to pick up 11 yards on a third-and-11 during his team's first drive of the game. He also made a very difficult toe-dragging grab near the sideline to convert on another third down later in the game. His run-blocking was solid as he was often asked to move to the second level to help seal off linebackers. And for the second consecutive week he made a key block for a touchdown, this time leading the way for Brandin Cooks on an end-around. But Gronkowski was flagged three times, once for pushing off and twice for inexcusable false starts. Dwayne Allen is still waiting for his first catch, and Jacob Hollister (on his lone offensive snap) seemed to miss a block near the goal line that blew up a Mike Gillislee run and led to the Patriots settling for a field goal in the third quarter.
OFFENSIVE LINE: A-
Tom Brady was sacked twice, but neither was due to any obvious breakdown in protection from the guys in the trenches. The Patriots quarterback was hit only on one other occasion, but it came on a six-second play that saw Brady roll out and throw across his body. Not on the line, and even if it was, it was wiped out because of a roughing-the-passer call. In the running game, Dante Scarnecchia's group exerted its will -- particularly in the four-minute drill. Against what was at times a nine-man box, with the Falcons knowing the Patriots would run it, they were able to grind out the necessary yardage to close out the game anyway. Solder picked up a pair of penalties (one seemingly questionable hold and one false start), and Marcus Cannon could have been whistled for at least one false start but was not. Overall, this was as clean a day as the line had all season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Only a couple of demerits here on what was a very good night overall for Joe Judge's units: Patrick Chung was flagged for a hold on the very first punt return of the game (Jonathan Jones also got mixed up in some extracurricular with the Falcons on the same play), and the Patriots didn't do much in the return game in the few opportunities they were given. Otherwise, hard to ask for much more. Cassius Marsh made a tone-setting field-goal block. Stephen Gostkowski made all three of his field goals and both extra points. Danny Amendola successfully scooped up a late onside kick. And the coverage was tremendous. The Falcons were pinned behind their own 30 on each of their eight drives, thanks in part to strong tackles made by Rex Burkhead (two), Matthew Slater, Brandon King and Brandon Bolden. Chris Hogan saw some time on kickoff for the first time as a member of the Patriots -- something that was touted as a strength of his when he initially signed with the team as a restricted free agent before last season.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Through one half of play, this group helped limit a potent Falcons running game to just 3.3 yards per carry. Deatrich Wise, Trey Flowers (two) and Alan Branch all helped to stuff Atlanta runs in the game. They also two-gapped well in certain instances to help clear out space for their linebackers and safeties to make tackles behind them. And though Flowers didn't get credit for the goal-line stuff on fourth down in the fourth quarter, he did help string out Taylor Gabriel's jet-sweep run in order to make life a little easier on Kyle Van Noy as he finished off the play. Outside of an Adam Butler sack, though, it was a relatively quiet night from the Patriots pass rush. Branch, not known for his ability to get after the quarterback, actually picked up a couple of hurries. Ditto for Wise and Flowers. But Ryan was able to evade pressure for the most part, and he exploited Cassius Marsh's aggressive rushes up the field on a pair of occasions to pick up first-down runs -- one of which came on Atlanta's first fourth-down attempt of the game. Ryan ran to Marsh's side three times in all for good gains, although it appeared as though Marsh was held on one snap and it was not called. Malcom Brown was good against the run early, but he suffered an ankle injury on the first play of the second half and remained in the game for just one more snap before leaving for good. He was spotted in the locker room Monday with a noticeable limp.
Maybe this is why the Patriots trust Kyle Van Noy to play close to 100 percent of their defensive snaps. He seems to play better -- and with more speed -- with each passing week, perhaps because he's getting more comfortable in his role and his assignments. He made arguably the biggest defensive play of the game when he brought down Taylor Gabriel on a jet sweep in the fourth quarter for a loss of five on fourth down at the goal line. "Very instinctive play," Belichick said Monday. "He recognized the motion and then saw that the defender [in man coverage] was a little bit behind the receiver, and so he moved into position to have better leverage on the play." Van Noy also blew up an early crack toss play for a loss of three. Dont'a Hightower stuffed a Falcons run by setting a strong edge against a double-team, but he hurt his shoulder trying to tackle Devonta Freeman late in the third quarter and did not return. With Hightower and Elandon Roberts out, David Harris saw a season-high 19 snaps and made a pair of sure tackles. Should Roberts or Hightower's injuries linger, he could see an expanded role in the coming weeks.
The Patriots knew they'd be able to use Matt Ryan's play-it-safe style against him. By showing relatively obvious double teams on Julio Jones, Ryan was often forced to go elsewhere (or scramble) in order to do any damage in the passing game. It's a style that requires sound tackling because there's not much help for defensive backs in coverage on other receivers. But this team has been consistently sound in that regard for years, and the coaching staff trusted them to limit explosive plays. They did just that, giving up just one gain of 20 yards or more, which came on their final drive with the outcome essentially in hand. Johnson Bademosi was solid as a tackler, making a pair of good stops on receiver screens. He also broke up a pass, playing underneath Jones with Duron Harmon over the top. Malcolm Butler was confused on one of the first pass plays of the game, unable to find Mohamed Sanu until late in the play clock, leading to a seven-yard pickup by Sanu. Otherwise, he was very good. He read run quickly to blow up a Tevin Coleman carry and late in the game he got Justin Hardy down for a loss of one. His pass-breakup on Jones in the end zone was key in setting up New England's goal-line stand, and the touchdown he gave up to Jones was one of those tip-your-cap-to-one-of-the-freakiest-athletes-in-the-game type plays. No turnovers for this group, but in terms of being on the same page, and in the right place at the right time, this was their best effort of the year. Against the reigning MVP. And without two of their top three corners.