Normally in this space, we write about the upcoming opponent for the Patriots. We’ll get to the strengths, weaknesses and insights into the Falcons in a minute, but let’s be honest: tonight’s game isn’t about Falcons.
It’s about the Patriots.
It’s Week 7. It’s Sunday Night Football and a national television audience. The Falcons, the team you just beat to win the Super Bowl, is the opponent and a formidable one at that.
Are the real Patriots going to stand up? Because to this point, with nearly 40 percent of the schedule gone, we have no clue who or what this team is.
The got blasted at home by the Chiefs in the opener. Handled a then-limping Saints squad. Squeaked by the Texans and a rookie quarterback making his second start. Looked totally inept defensively and made Cam Newton look like his former MVP in another home loss. And then followed that with two ugly road wins against the middling Bucs and rebuilding Jets.
Not one impressive win among them. By now, we’ve usually had that, “Oh, right, they’re still the Patriots'' game. Last season, it was the opener in Arizona. In ’15 the Patriots had beaten the Steelers, Cowboys and Colts by now. The Patriots dismantled the Bengals in ’14 after the Monday Night Massacre in Kansas City. In ’13, the Patriots beat the Falcons and Bengals on the road. In ’12, the Patriots beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos at home in Week 5.
When are the real 2017 Patriots going to reveal themselves?
To this point, we know that Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are really good, the Patriots start slow but will mount a comeback and … that’s about it.
I have no clue what to expect tonight.
In the past, I’d wager a small fortune the Patriots, with the doubters taking shots and a big opponent coming into Gillette, would put it all together and remind the nation that the king still resides inside Castle Razor.
I would not be surprised if that happened. This team is still way more talented than they’ve shown on the field. They’ve been a collective disjointed mess (for them) to this point, but as I’m reminded year in and year out covering the NFL: all it takes is one game, one quarter, one series — heck, one play — for everything to click into place for a football team. Then, they take off.
I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons came in and embarrassed the Patriots. New England, to this point, has been a mediocre football team. They’ve only looked good on offense in spurts. They don’t play smart as a team. There are too many penalties, especially on special teams. And the defense, especially in a largely veteran secondary, has looked at times as if they’ve never practiced together.
That’s not an opinion; those are facts. Even analytics back that up. FootballOutsiders.com has the Patriots as the 15th-most efficient football team. They’re second in offense, but 32nd in defense (by a wide margin), and 14th on special teams.
To this point, this is not your usual Patriots team. Any talk about 19-0 feels like it happened five years ago. As you’ve probably heard, the Patriots are the first team in NFL history to allow 300-yard passers in six straight games at any point in the season. They’ve allowed Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Josh McCown to do it in consecutive weeks. Matt Ryan and his Falcons weapons are by far the best quarterback/talent combination the Patriots have faced to this point. Suddenly, the Patriots are going to stem the tide, without two of their top three cornerbacks (Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe)?
All the data to this point tells us that will not happen. But they’re still the Patriots, so we expect them to.
But are they still the Patriots? We’ll find out tonight.
An in-depth look at the Falcons, with gameplan points and game pick: