The Falcons spent the offseason pretending their epic Super Bowl collapse didn’t happen. On Sunday night, they learned that pretending your problems don’t exist only makes them worse.
The Patriots dominated the Falcons 23-7 in a game that resembled a role reversal of the Super Bowl, except without the comeback part. Given the chance to exorcise the demons of that excruciating February loss and pesky 28-3 blown lead, the team went into #Fogsborough and promptly laid an egg for almost 55 minutes. It’s a psychologically crushing defeat for Atlanta, which is now in third place in the NFC South at 3-3.
The game was poised to be a shootout. As The Ringer’s Robert Mays noted earlier this week, the Falcons have taken a step back on offense; offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has not been able to coax the same record-setting production from Atlanta’s unit that his predecessor Kyle Shanahan did. But even with that step back, the Falcons entered this week ranked fourth in offensive DVOA and first in rushing DVOA. Meanwhile, as Rodger Sherman noted earlier this week, the Patriots pass defense is bad at everything. The Pats entered this game last in the league in just about every defensive category. They had allowed a 300-yard passer in every game this season and logged performances that made every quarterback they faced look like an MVP candidate. A date with the Patriots seemed the perfect way for Atlanta and Matt Ryan to reclaim elite status and perhaps a shred of dignity.
They got neither—in fact, their offense looks worse and their dignity weaker after the rematch, even if the numbers don’t look all that bad. Ryan finished with 23 completions on 33 attempts (69.7 percent) for 233 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones managed nine catches for 99 yards and a touchdown on 13 targets. The Pats went up 20-0 with four minutes left in the third quarter, and the Falcons needed to get their offense going to flip the script. But Atlanta faced nine third downs, converted just two of them, and was held scoreless until garbage time. They had a couple of bad breaks, including a field goal that was blocked, but overall Atlanta’s offense was lifeless. If the Super Bowl was defined by an unshakable feeling of an inevitable Pats comeback, the rematch was defined by Atlanta’s stagnation.
The way the Falcons respond to their second loss against New England may be more important than their response to the first. Atlanta is now behind both the Saints and the Panthers in their division. They’ve lost their past three games, including a shocking collapse against the Dolphins last week. They were a goal-line stand from losing to the Bears in Week 1. A team focused on returning to the Super Bowl will now spend the rest of the season clawing for a playoff spot.
The Falcons looked disoriented against the Pats. Maybe it had something to do with the supernatural fog that enveloped the stadium. The fog descending felt eerily apt a week out from Halloween—the ghosts of Falcons past came back to haunt them.