The Patriots made a statement last Sunday, beating the Browns handedly at home, and announcing their return to legitimate contender status. The Pats are riding high on a four-game win streak. They will look to stretch it to five with a win over the 4-5 Falcons.
While the Pats are gaining attention as one of the hottest teams in the league, the Falcons seem to be caught in purgatory. Each Falcons win has been by a single possession, their largest margin of victory being 7 points over the Jets. They feature two losses by a single possession but also three more by 23-points or more. The Falcons’ record has them just outside the NFC playoff picture despite low ratings from advanced metrics.
The Falcons are 32nd in total VOA, 29th in OVOA, 31st in DVOA, and 32nd in STVOA. VOA is an advanced metric that measures total team (total VOA), offensive (OVOA), defensive (DVOA), and special teams (STVOA) value over average. Frankly, the Falcons are rated as the worst team in football. Particularly incredible when you see them on the bubble of the NFC playoff picture. The average winning percentage in single possession games is .500, meaning the Falcons have found some luck in these games which have boosted their win percentage.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Patriots are 5th in total VOA, 16th in OVOA, 5th in DVOA, and 8th in STVOA. This is including their slow start to the season on offense and special teams. Despite recent trends, a short week against an unfamiliar opponent can cause problems. If the Pats want to be viewed as a good team, they need to handle their business against the Falcons. A repeat of the Houston performance would show an immature team that isn’t ready for success.
Without further ado, the game preview written in “who has the advantage when…” format.
Pats Pass the Ball
Mac followed up two poor showings with his best career game against the Browns last Sunday. Since Week 6, Mac is 9th in the NFL in yards, 5th in TDS, 4th in TD:INT ratio, 2nd in EPA per play, and 7th in average depth of target while the Pats to a 4-1 record and the highest points per game during that stretch. Not only that, but on the season the Patriots trail only the Raiders in plays of 20-plus yards. The Pats had 51 such plays all of last season. In ten games this year they already have 48. While the weather turns colder, it is becoming apparent it’s also becoming “Let Mac Cook” season.
In the past four games the Pats are averaging 37.5 points per game. All around impressive numbers for an offense led by a rookie quarterback who had concerns regarding his arm strength while coming out.
A large reason Mac has had such great success has been the stellar job of the big guys upfront. The Patriots’ offensive line is allowing pressure on only 15% of Mac’s dropbacks over the last month. That 15% is good for second-best in the league during that stretch. Even more impressive is the competition the offensive line has faced during that time. Premier pass rushers Joey Bosa, Haason Reddick, Myles Garrett, and Jadeveon Clowney were largely nonfactors in games against the Pats.
That’s all good news for the Pats as they face a defense that has struggled against top competition. While the Pats have shut down opponents’ edge rushers, the Falcons Grady Jarrett will present a new challenge. Mac is the prototypical pocket passer. Jarrett is the prototypical pocket penetrator from the interior defensive line. The success of the passing game will largely come down to the trio of Ted Karras, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason keeping the structure of the pocket for Mac. If Mac has time, Mac is going to cook.
Pats Run the Ball
A week ago, the Pats’ top two backs didn’t practice and Rhamondre Stevenson was cleared to play on Saturday. The result was the Patriots’ single-best rushing output this season against a typically stingy defense. This week the Pats cleared Damien Harris from concussion protocol to return the running back room to full strength. After seeing what Stevenson could do as a feature back, having him splitting carries to keep him and Harris fresh is sure to have given the Falcons defense headaches before the game even started.
Toss in a newly returned 6’8”, 360 pound Trent Brown and the Pats are primed to play hardnosed football down the stretch. Last week we saw a Mason-Brown-Onwenu right side of the line average 6.7 yards per carry. The Patriots’ success on first down in the running game has led to the team converting on 46.9% of their third downs this season. That success rate is good for fourth-best in the league, trailing only the Chiefs, Bills, and Buccaneers. McDaniels could go with that grouping all night against the Falcons and have unlimited success. The Falcons are middle of the pack in terms of defending the run. On a short week, a physical game plan by the Pats may make quick work of the Falcons defense.
Falcons Pass the Ball
While Mac has been cooking, Matt Ryan was nowhere near the kitchen last Sunday completing nine, NINE!!!, passes against the Cowboys. The Falcons passing offense was supposed to be a potent, multi-layer attack with the addition of uber-talented rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. Unfortunately for the Falcons, starting wide receiver Calvin Ridley has missed multiple games this season and backups Russell Gage and Tajae Sharpe have not picked up the slack. Backup tight end Hayden Hurst is usually involved in carrying some of the weight of the passing game but will miss Thursday’s game against the Pats.
While Pitts has provided one bright spot for the Falcons, WR/RB Cordarrelle Patterson has provided the other. The return-man-turned-offensive-weapon leads the team with 5 receiving touchdowns and trails Pitts for the team lead in reception by one catch. He’s also the team’s leading rusher. His status for Thursday night will be determined in pregame but an already unfavorable matchup could get downright ugly if he can’t go.
The Falcons have had issues against man-coverage this season, something that does not bode well for them as they prepare to play the league leader in Cover 1 use. The Pats have utilized zone coverage 70.5% of the time over the last four weeks but have always been a gameplan team under Belichick. The Falcons average 4.69 yards per play against man coverage, completing 60.9% of their passes. Those numbers jump to 5.87 and 72.4% against zone. The recent success of the Pats zone coverage should not lull them into a faulty game plan against the Falcons. If Patterson can’t go the Pats can focus resources on stopping Pitts and taking the motor out of this offense.
Falcons Run the Ball
The Falcons’ issues don’t stop here. Their rushing attack doesn’t crack the top 30 in any advanced metric. The lack of balance on offense has led to a bottom-six team in terms of offensive drives that result in points and a team that trails only the Jets and Lions in offensive drives that result in turnovers. The Pats were gashed early against the Browns before changing their approach and finding success. The feeling here is the Pats might not need to change much to find success in stopping the Falcons run game. Ja’Whaun Bentley and Dont’a Hightower form a formidable core to the Patriots run defense that should continue to find splash plays against the Falcons.
The Falcons had a punt blocked last week that added to already dismal season performance from their special teams. The Pats had a rough start but have returned to their dominance in the third phase of the game. Last week saw some hidden yards lost in the return game as Jakobi Meyers’ hesitance to field punts led to some favorable Cleveland bounces. Thankfully Gunner Olszewski cleared concussion protocol and should be back to his spot in the return game.
Of note, but not necessarily game impacting, this will be Matthew Slater’s 200th career game with the Patriots. He joins Tom Brady (285), Bruce Armstrong (212), Julius Adams (206), and Stephen Gostkowski (204) to become the fifth Patriots player to do so.
The Falcons hired Arthur Smith this offseason in hopes of turning the teams’ fortunes around. He comes to Atlanta from Tennessee where he served as offensive coordinator under Mike Vrabel. Belichick has historically dominated rookie head coaches and with a short week of prep, the hoodie gets all the advantages here. Belichick’s ability to self-scout has taken the Pats from a 2-4 team to one that is 6-4 and looking like a legitimate contender. McDaniels had perhaps his best game of the year against Cleveland and should continue to let Mac cook.
Regardless of coaching the officiating crew tonight is one of the more flag-happy crews in the league. Land Clark will serve as referee. His crews average 17.4 accepted penalties per game, second-most among crews.
One thing to keep in mind in regards to Thursday night games; teams usually stay with their bread and butter plays as they had limited time to install game-specific game plans. The good news is the Patriots’ power-trap run game is one of their staples. It’s been a big part of their offensive success this season and will be again against the Falcons.
A unanimous favoring of the Pats in the breakdown should be reflected on the field. However, a year ago the Pats were riding high after a 45-0 beatdown of the Chargers before dropping a dud on Thursday Night Football, losing to the Rams 24-3. A week ago, division rivals, and heavy underdog, Miami Dolphins took down the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday Night Football. Belichick will have focused on the narrow victory against the Texans to have his team focused regardless of the opponent. While the Pats should win big, the ultimate goal is to walk out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium 7-4. A win is a win is a win. Wondered if predicting 28-3 would be taboo. 28 points for the Pats in this one seems low. Pats win 34-13.