FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Even as a ghoulish fog swallowed this Super Bowl LI rematch whole, it was clear enough to see that the 2017 New England Patriots finally fielded a team worthy of having Tom Brady on it.
At 40-years-old, an age demanding that the Patriots carry him (and not the other way around), Brady had a burden heavier than a grand piano on his back. New England’s defense had spent too much time this season doing a Frank Caliendo-esque impression of the defense that showed up for much of the first three quarters against the Atlanta Falcons last February in Houston. The Patriots lost two of their first three home games for that reason, and barely beat the Texans to avoid going 0 for 3.
Their defense was historically defenseless in allowing six consecutive opposing quarterbacks to throw for at least 300 yards, and Bill Belichick’s coordinator, Matt Patricia, became the kind of TV star no coach wants to be. Round and fully bearded, Patricia was photogenic even before his unit starting breaking down. So when the camera operators needed a face to slap on New England’s futility and couldn’t possibly turn to the five-time Super Bowl champion head coach who’s known as the Stephen Hawking of defensive minds, Patricia was the man.
Funny, but Patricia was once a rocket scientist in training. He remembered Sunday night that defending the pass isn’t, you know, rocket science. The Patriots held Matt Ryan, the reigning league MVP, to 233 yards in the air and one garbage-time touchdown to Julio Jones in the 23-7 victory. And for the first time this season, the 2017 Patriots looked like the very thing they’ve been nearly every year since Brady took the ball in 2001.
A contender. A serious one at that.
“This is a good step for us,” said safety Duron Harmon, dressed in a blue Los Angeles Dodgers jacket, “to let us know that we can play good football, and we can play it for 60 minutes.”
To let us know we can play good football. When’s the last time you heard a New England Patriot say that seven games into a season?
It’s been that kind of year, at least by this franchise’s standards. Brady had been Brady, even with Julian Edelman out for the year and despite already been sacked more often this season than all of 2016. Brady entered the night with 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and 1,959 passing yards, which put him on pace for 5,224 yards — the fourth highest total in league history. If the Patriots didn’t help him sooner rather than later, he’d surely unleash a fastball and his right arm would go sailing right along with it.
The Patriots helped Brady on Sunday night in a big way, reminding the Falcons of the 18-wheeler that pancaked them and their 28-3 lead late in the third quarter of last year’s Super Bowl. Belichick had been hounding his players about finally playing like the Patriots who won two of the last three titles. “It’s about time we play complementary football for four quarters,” Belichick told them, according to Devin McCourty.
“I thought we executed our game plan perfectly tonight,” the safety said. “Our coaches have been on us about, just make a team make a play to beat us.”
The Falcons badly wanted this one for the obvious reasons. As Brady said of Super Bowls, “Those games, they live with you the rest of your life.” The Falcons saw those “28-3” signs inside Gillette Stadium and outside on Route 1, and they’d read all about those 283 diamonds in the Patriots’ championship rings. The Falcons weren’t going to get a parade if they won the rematch, but after consecutive losses to Buffalo and Miami, a victory over a dynastic AFC East team would go a long way toward righting wrongs on all sorts of levels.
So the Falcons declined to punt on a fourth-and-7 near midfield in the first quarter, and Ryan scrambled for the first down. Only that possession ended when New England’s Cassius Marsh blocking a Matt Bryant field goal, a play that inspired the normally-expressionless Belichick to react like a frat boy with a painted face. Anyone who’s been paying attention the last 16 years knows Belichick devotes more resources to special teams than any coach in the league, and on cue, he said his team had worked hard during the week on getting a piece of a kick.
In fact, Sunday was a Belichickian night from start to finish. Marsh, Johnson Bademosi and Kyle Van Noy — who tackled Taylor Gabriel for a 5-yard loss on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter — all made big plays. They were all acquired over the last 12 months for draft picks ranging from the fifth to seventh rounds.
Malcolm Butler, undrafted, played like the Super Bowl hero he was against Seattle three seasons ago. And James White, who scored 20 of New England’s 31 unanswered points in February’s overtime victory over Atlanta, caught one of Brady’s two touchdown passes. On the other side, Atlanta discovered that its high-powered offense remains broken. It’s hard to believe players as talented as Ryan and Jones can struggle so much to put a few points on the board.
The Falcons couldn’t hide their problems under the low-lying cloud cover. When it was over, Belichick said he hadn’t seen fog that thick since his first year in the league, in 1975, when his Baltimore Colts beat the Miami Dolphins on a kick he couldn’t see. All Patriots — including the inactives and those on the practice squad — made his list of people he said he was proud of.
Brady didn’t need the shoutout any more than he needs another title to secure his place in history. His parents were in attendance Sunday night, a significant development for his mother, Galynn Brady, whose grueling fight with cancer prevented her from attending any games last year before Super Bowl LI. Galynn’s son carved pumpkins with his kids during the day, then carved up the Atlanta defense at night with 249 yards and touchdowns on 21 of 29 passing.
“A pretty perfect day for me,” Tom Brady called it.
The play of New England’s defense was his cherry on top. As a team, the Patriots finally looked as good as their ageless quarterback. And that’s never good news for people around pro football who prefer the preservation of parity over the pursuit of perfection.