There are bad weeks to blow 17-0 leads, and then there is what the Atlanta Falcons have just done to themselves.
With the Super Bowl LI rematch against the New England Patriots looming, the Falcons allowed Jay Cutler and the Miami Dolphins to ring up 20 unanswered points – at home, no less – to drop to 3-2. It was Atlanta’s second home loss in as many tries to an AFC East team, following a 23-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Oct. 1, with its bye week in between.
Not the best way to squash the 28-3 narrative.
Granted, the Patriots have looked far from super themselves in a 4-2 start. All six quarterbacks to face the New England defense have eclipsed 300 yards through the air. Few – if any – of Bill Belichick’s off-season roster moves have panned out as expected. And although 40-year-old Tom Brady continues to defy the process of aging, he’s still being hit at an alarming rate.
These are two teams that haven’t even come close to hitting their strides. The Patriots, if nothing else, have the benefit of having been there and done that. They’ve won two of the last three Super Bowl titles, after all.
The Falcons? No two teams are alike, but history hasn’t been kind to teams in the season following a Super Bowl loss. You have to go all the way back to the unbeaten 1972 Miami Dolphins to find a team that lost the Super Bowl one year and went on to win it the next. No team has even been back to the Super Bowl a year after losing it since the 1993 Buffalo Bills, who lost four straight times in the big game.
The winner of Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium won’t clinch a trip to U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII in February, nor will the loser be eliminated from contention. But the stakes are high all the same for each team and the direction its respective season could turn.
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Two struggling units, each thought to be an undeniable strength before the regular season, will come head to head on Sunday: New England’s much-maligned defensive backfield and Atlanta’s surprisingly quiet offense.
Atlanta scored 540 points last year, tied for the seventh-most in NFL history with the 2000 St. Louis Rams for an average of 33.8 points per game.
The scoring is down considerably through five games this year, as the Falcons are averaging only 24.2 points per contest – a 16-game pace of 387 points.
Reigning league MVP Matt Ryan has eclipsed 300 yards passing just once – barely, at that, throwing for 308 in the Falcons’ season opener – while Atlanta has failed to go over 300 yards of total offense twice already after missing out just once all of last season.
Ryan was certainly good enough to win in Super Bowl LI, completing 17 of 23 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Good enough wasn’t even close to being enough when it all came crashing down for the Falcons and a 28-3 lead turned into a 34-28 loss in overtime.
In Ryan’s defense, neither of his top targets from a season ago has been completely healthy in 2017. Wide receivers Julio Jones (hip flexor) and Mohamed Sanu (hamstring) exited the Buffalo game with injuries. Jones returned this past week against the Dolphins, while Sanu’s initial timetable was to be out two to three weeks, perhaps putting him on track to play against the Patriots.
In that regard, it’s a clash where something almost certainly has to give. A fully healthy Falcons lineup going against the Patriots defense is a clear advantage for Atlanta on paper. At some point the Falcons offense, still featuring Devonta Freeman at running back, has to click once again, right?
By the same token, New England’s five-alarm inferno in the secondary has to burn out at some point…right?
In recent weeks, the Patriots have allowed average-to-below average quarterbacks in Jameis Winston and Josh McCown to continue stoking the flames of the fire defensively, but however small it may appear, progress is present. A week after holding Winston to 7.3 yards per completion, New England yielded only 7.5 yards per completion to McCown. Especially after the nightmarish first 20 or so minutes against the Jets, that has to be looked at as another step in the right direction following Cam Newton’s 10.9 yards per completion and DeShaun Watson’s 9.1 in the weeks prior.
There is, of course, injury concern anew in the defensive backfield for the Patriots between Eric Rowe’s continued absence with a groin injury and Stephon Gilmore’s surprise inaction for the Jets game due to a concussion that hadn’t appeared on any injury report leading up to the game.
Going beyond the key matchup, both Atlanta and New England are due for complete performances in all three phases of the game.
For each team, this Sunday night in Foxboro is about righting the ship.
Yet for every problem the Patriots may currently have, they are still in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. The Falcons, in addition to looking to avoid falling to .500, have the unenviable weight of last February’s blown opportunity etched in their memories whether they’d admit it or not.
Meanwhile, New England is somewhat curiously 1-2 at home, its worst start at Gillette since losing three of its first five home games in 2006. The Patriots haven’t lost three games at home in total since 2008 – better known as the Matt Cassel year.
When the 2017 regular season schedule was released, a case could be made that this Patriots-Falcons matchup was the best game on the entire slate. It wasn’t just a Super Bowl rematch – it could well be a Super Bowl preview.
That may well still be the case. Instead, it’s a battle of two teams with Super expectations not playing anywhere near to their potential. Throw in just a tad of desperation on each side, the fact that it’s not even the halfway point of the season notwithstanding, and it’ll make for compelling theater all the same.