8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Patriots -7, Over/Under: 47.5
Week Eleven kicks off from Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the surging New England Patriots looking to extend their winning streak to five games as they pay a visit to the Atlanta Falcons, whom they share a very particular piece of history with. After a slow start to the campaign, the Patriots (6-4, 2nd in AFC East) may very well be the hottest team in the National Football League, winning each of their last four games by an average margin of 25.0 points. That’s right, folks, to the surprise of absolutely nobody on planet Earth, (Head Coach) Bill Belichick & Co have finally figured it out in this bold new Post-Tom Brady era in New England, turning back the clock and winning games like they did back in the early 2000s. Indeed, these Pats look eerily similar to the group that kicked off their dynasty twenty years ago, with a ruthlessly efficient approach on Offense, and a physical, adaptive approach on the defensive side of the football. During this four-game winning streak, (Offensive Coordinator) Josh McDaniels has turned to the ground game for success, with his troops trampling the opposition to the tune of 156.3 rushing yards on 4.3 yards per carry, including a season-high 184 yards in last weekend’s dominant 45-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns. The fourth consecutive game in which they rushed the football at least thirty times, (Rookie Tailback) Rhamondre Stevenson (55 CAR, 256 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 3 TD) led the way with a personal-best 100 yards and two touchdowns on twenty carries, while (versatile Receiver) Kendrick Bourne (33 REC, 520 YDS, 15.8 Y/R, 3 TD) made the most of three carries amassing forty-three yards of his own. After Cleveland opened the afternoon with a clinical, eleven-play, 84-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead, it was ALL Patriots from there with the hosts running off FORTY-FIVE unanswered points, scoring on all but one of their eight possessions, six of which culminating in touchdowns. “Industrious” would be the most appropriate way to describe Belichick’s charges in this affair, manufacturing four drives of eighty or more yards and three consisting of at least elven plays, including their opening possession of fifteen plays for eighty-three yards encompassing a whopping 9:39 of game time. In the end, New England held significant advantages across the board, including total yards (452-217), rushing yards (184-99), first downs (30-17), turnovers (0-1), third down (7/9-1/11), and time of possession (34:02) as Belichick appeared to be making a point against one of his former employers. The Defense has also rounded back into the form that we’ve come to expect from Belichick-helmed unit, relegating their last four opponents to just 12.5 points on 281.3 total yards, including 180.8 against the pass on a scant 4.49 net yards per attempt, yielding just four touchdowns through the air in comparison to EIGHT interceptions, all the while racking up ELEVEN sacks for a loss of seventy-nine yards. Much was made of Belichick opening up the checkbook and making a series of targeted purchases in Free Agency, with the 69-year-old getting personnel that fits his system. (Edge-Rusher) Matt Judon (37 TKL, 10 TFL, 19 QBH, 9.5 SK, 1 FR) has been a wrecking ball since arriving from Baltimore, while the return of (veteran Linebacker) Dont’a Hightower (34 TKL, 3 QBH, 0.5 SK), who opted out of 2020 due to concerns over COVID-19, has steadied the middle of the Defense with his presence. Furthermore, even after jettisoning (wantaway All-Pro Cornerback) Stephon Gilmore back in early October, the younger members of the Secondary have proceeded to ball out; (unheralded Cornerback) J.C. Jackson (38 TKL, 5 INT, 14 PD, 1 TD), who has more interceptions than any player since making his debut in 2018 (22), stands poised to break the bank in the offseason with FIVE interceptions a league-best FOURTEEN defended passes thus far, while (Sophomore Safety) Kyle Dugger (64 TKL, 4 TFL, 1 QBH, 3 INT, 3 PD) leads the team with sixty-four tackles, while adding another three interceptions to his ledger. With all that said, all anyone has been able to talk about in Foxborough has been the steady growth of (Rookie Quarterback) Mac Jones (69.0%, 2,333 YDS, 6.38 NY/A, 13 TD, 7 INT, 51.1 QBR), who has grown more and more comfortable within McDaniels’ scheme with each passing week. In hindsight it is remarkable that Jones fell to the Pats at 15th Overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, with his selection marking the first time that Belichick has picked a Quarterback in the First Round in his twenty-two years with the franchise. The successor to Brady’s throne in New England, there was always going to be a considerable amount of pressure on the young signal-caller, but to his credit he has outperformed every other Quarterback in his draft class thus far, even resembling a young TB12 on occasion; during this particular stretch, Jones has completed an efficient 65.1% of his attempts for an average of 215.3 yards per game on 7.2 net yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and a pair of turnovers. Against the Browns, he got rid of the football quicker than a hiccup, completing a career-high 19-of-23 passes (82.6%) for 198 yards and three touchdowns, including the opener to (Tight End) Hunter Henry (31 REC, 343 YDS, 11.4 Y/R, 7 TD) and a 23-yard strike to the aforementioned Bourne late in the second quarter. Indeed, Jones-to-Henry is even being dubbed as Brady-to-Gronkowski light by the faithful in New England as the Patriots now find themselves just one game behind the Buffalo Bills in the loss column, with two crucial games looming against their AFC East rivals, including a Monday night affair at Orchard Park in two weeks. First, they’ll have to get through a trip to the Dirty Dirty, where the Falcons’ fan base will be armed with the “warmest” of welcomes. Of course, we’re referring to the shared history between these teams that is Super Bowl LI, where the Pats rallied back from what seemed to be an insurmountable 28-3 deficit to win their fifth Lombardi trophy in overtime, 34-28. The two sides have meant once since that fateful encounter, with New England besting Atlanta in a 23-7 later that year in Foxborough. With that said, apart from Belichick, McDaniels, and a few members of the Defense there aren’t many figures from that championship side left on this current incarnation of the Patriots. As you can imagine, as a master of preparation, Belichick’s teams have faired better than most on these short weeks, with the Patriots amassing a stellar 13-4 record (.764) under his watch on Thursdays, though came up short in their most recent outing, a 24-3 defeat at the Rams last year.
Meanwhile, there may not have been many things to get excited about if you’re a member of the Falcons (4-5, 4th in NFC South) coming into 2021, but if there was one game that was circled on the schedule then it would undoubtedly be tonight’s affair with the Patriots. Simply put, that aforementioned collapse in Super Bowl LI serves as the singular breaking point for a franchise that was literally thirty minutes away from hoisting their first Lombardi trophy, and when you think about what has transpired since that fateful evening in Houston it only becomes all the more painful for the Atlanta faithful. Coming into that contest the Falcons were flying high on the strength of the NFL’s most explosive Offense led by (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Matt Ryan, fresh off of earning 2016 MVP honors, and though the NFC Champions would stun New England early and often en route to building a 28-3 lead at Halftime, melted down in the most remarkable of fashions as their lead eroded away over the course of the second half. After finding themselves on the wrong side of the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, these birds would advance to the postseason just once in the four years that followed, suffering three straight losing campaigns, with last year’s 4-12 finish serving as the nadir of their descent into mediocrity. During that period, they wore the dreaded Super Bowl hangover longer than most runners-up, developing a knack for blowing large leads as history repeated itself over and over again. Furthermore, they’ve parted ways with a number of the prominent figures from that seismic showdown, including (Offensive Coordinator) Kyle Shanahan, who was hired as the San Francisco 49ers Head Coach immediately after the loss, (General Manager) Thomas Dimitroff, who constructed the team, along with (Head Coach) Dan Quinn, who was ousted after a series of collapses last season, as well as (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones, who was traded away back in early June for a 2022 Second Round Pick (and a conditional Fourth). By all accounts, this is a franchise that has embarked on a complete renovation, with only the aforementioned Ryan (67.7%, 2,274 YDS, 6.38 NY/A, 15 TD, 8 INT, 55.5 QBR) left from that once-promising team. With that said, there were a wealth of rumors that the 36-year-old would also be dealt during the offseason, though (General Manager) Terry Fontenot and (Head Coach) Arthur Jones ultimately decided that it would be easier to rebuild around the four-time Pro-Bowler than completely starting from scratch. While there has certainly been logic in that decision given the fact that the Falcons have proven competitive in already matching their win total from a year ago thanks in large part to Ryan’s steady play, the veteran’s presence on the books prevents management from initiating a full-blown rebuild; Ryan counted $29.6 million against their salary cap this season, and will see that number increase exponentially to a staggering $48.6 million next season and $43.6 in 2023, though the potential out after this year will leave the club with an untenable $40.2 million in dead cap. Needless to say, he’s either a candidate to be extended, pushing a healthy portion of that guaranteed money into future years, or traded altogether to a contender willing to pay for his services. In the meantime, Atlanta is clinging to faint postseason hopes as they find themselves with a crowded group of teams within the NFC hovering around .500. So how have they faired in Jones first season as the Head Coach, you ask? Well, for a team in the first phase of what was expected to be a lengthy rebuilding project, they’ve handled themselves better than expected, and that’s because they’ve beaten the weaker teams on their schedule, while getting blasted by the better ones. Apart from a 27-25 victory over the 5-4 New Orleans Saints two weeks ago, the combined record of the teams that they’ve beaten is an unremarkable 8-20 (.285), while the overall record of their opponents who have defeated them is 25-22 (.531). Unspectacular would be the best way to describe this team, who rank twenty-fifth in both points scored (19.8) and total offense (337.1), while sitting next-to-last in points allowed (29.2). The running game (82.9 Y/G) has yet to gain much traction under Jones’ watch, which if you followed his career with the Titans, will lead you to believe that that is where he wants things to start on the offensive side of the football. However, this has been a passing team for years now, with their personnel geared towards supporting Ryan within the pocket, and even after flipping the aforementioned Jones for draft picks and the abrupt retirement of (Receiver) Calvin Ridley (31 REC, 281 YDS, 9.1 Y/R, 2 TD), this unit is still built to sling the football downfield. That’s because their 2021 First Round Pick, (Tight End) Kyle Pitts (40 REC, 606 YDS, 15.2 Y/R, 1 TD), has been a bonafide playmaker in every sense of the term; the Rookie has been a nightmare for opposing defenders, with Jones utilizing him a their chief vertical threat, resulting in a healthy 15.2 yards per reception. the same can be said about the Defense, which after years of running Quinn’s Seattle scheme isn’t necessarily built to run the schemes of (Defensive Coordinator) Dean Pees. Atlanta has just eleven sacks (32nd Overall) and eight takeaways (26th Overall) thus far, while yielding the second-worst third down rate in the league (47.3%); Pees’ history has taught us that he’d prefer to bring pressure, but with a young Secondary in hand he hasn’t had that luxury, which has been a problem given that the front has rarely gotten to the Quarterback on their own. All of these concerns came to a head in last weekend’s 43-3 blowout loss at the Dallas Cowboys, who erupted for TWENTY-NINE points in the second quarter alone, leaving the visitors wondering what just hit them. Simply put, NOTHING went the Falcons’ way in this one as they found themselves on the wrong side of a slew of statistics including total yards (214-431), passing yards (131-317), first downs (11-22), turnovers (3-1), third down (1/11-6/14), and time of possession (22:19). Perhaps the aforementioned Quinn, who is now Dallas’ Defensive Coordinator, had a beat on what his former charges were trying to do, for Ryan struggled mightily on a season-low 9-of-21 passing for 117 yards and two interceptions, while his backup, Josh Rosen, was intercepted in relief with the game well out of hand. With that said, they’re going to have to put this performance behind them, for they’re in very real danger of suffering the same fate against another tough opponent in short order. Over the last decade, the Falcons are 6-5 on Thursday nights, though have won four of the six contests that have been contested in the ATL. Vengeance is a dish served cold, Atlanta, and though a win tonight won’t stop the world from trolling you with 28-3 memes on social media, it will get back to .500 and closer to getting back to the playoffs for the first time in four years.