As the fog lifts, Pats re-emerge as contenders

Published: 10/23/2017 12:50:30 AM
Modified: 11/12/2008 3:10:12 PM
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the moments after Lady Gaga performed at Super Bowl LI, a dense cloud of pyrotechnic smoke lingered over the field at Houston’s NRG Stadium.  The Patriots emerged from that cloud with a historic comeback against the Atlanta Falcons to claim their fifth Super Bowl victory.
On Sunday night, a vastly more ominous cloud of fog enveloped Southeastern Massachusetts, including Gillette Stadium, the Patriots and those very same Atlanta Falcons, making portions of the Super Bowl LI rematch virtually invisible to fans watching from within the stadium and without.
Whether you could see it or not, the Patriots once again rose from the haze, this time playing their best game of the season and for the first time asserting themselves as legitimate contenders for another NFL crown with a 23-7 victory Atlanta.
Most notably, a New England defense that has challenged the Patriots faithful for more than a month shut down a talent-laden Falcons offense.
Granted, Atlanta’s attack has struggled this season and hardly resembles the unit that averaged 33.8 points per game last season. Nonetheless, a team with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman represented one of the best possible tests for a defense that had to go without cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. The defense aced that test, holding Ryan to 233 passing yards, the first time this season an opposing quarterback failed to throw for at least 300 against New England.
Over the last three weeks, the defense has allowed 40 points after giving up 89 in the first three games when communication problems led to a glut of big plays and embarrassing gaps in coverage. On a night when the secondary was shorthanded, the defense turned in its best effort of the year.
“I think we turned a corner,” Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler said. “Coming together, communicating better and playing smart football.”
Atlanta’s only points came in garbage time when Ryan completed a one-yard touchdown to Julio Jones with 4:13 left in the game. The play was well-defended by Butler who nearly intercepted the ball before Jones plucked it from his hands. Otherwise, the Patriots turned in a bendable performance reminiscent of last year’s unit, surrendering yardage but not many points. Defensive lineman Cassius Marsh blocked a Matt Bryant field goal attempt, and Bryant later missed another kick from 36 yards.
New England’s defense came into the game ranked 26th in third-down conversion rate, allowing opponents to convert on 33 of 76 attempts (43.4 percent). On Sunday, they held Atlanta to two conversions on nine third-down attempts (22.2 percent) and for good measure stopped the Falcons on two of three fourth-down tries. Safety Duron Harmon said this game demonstrated how the Patriots have overcome the problems that plagued New England throughout the first month of the season.
“Everything we didn’t want to do, we did those (first few) weeks,” Harmon said. “We learned from it.”
Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.

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