Thursday Night Football Preview: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons

Rookie Report: Kyle Pitts

Here’s a preview of Thursday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons, courtesy of STAT Stack:


Line: Patriots -7, Total: 47


The Difference a Year Makes

After a 7-9 season in 2020, the Patriots first without Tom Brady in 20 years, pundits questioned whether Bill Belichick could succeed without his Hall of Fame quarterback. The team selected Mac Jones with its first-round pick in 2021, and he had some early growing pains. The Pats started 1-3 this season, scoring 71 points in their first four games (17.8 points per game), while Jones took 10 sacks, and the team turned the ball over seven times.

Over the last six games, in which the Pats have gone 5-1, they’ve averaged 34.0 points per game. Jones has been sacked fewer times in those six games (9) than he was in the first four. And the team has turned the ball over the same number of times (7) in those six as the first four. In 16 games last season, the Patriots scored 325 points (20.3 PPG). This year, through 10 games, they find themselves just 50 points shy of that mark (275 points scored this season) and seem poised to shatter that number. In 2019, in their last season with Brady under center, the Pats scored 420 points in 16 regular-season games (26.3 PPG). This year’s team would need to average just over 24 points per game over the next six to beat that total. To start, they’ll need to take advantage of this game against Atlanta (31st in points allowed at 29.2 per game).

Speaking of Atlanta, the Falcons have yet to win a game in Mercedes Benz Stadium this season (0-3). While their home record sits at 1-3, the one victory was in London over the Jets where Atlanta was considered the “home team.” In three games inside “The Benz,” the Falcons have allowed an average of 28.3 points per game in games against Philadelphia (11th in points scored/game), Washington (20th) and Carolina (21st). Now they face a Patriots team averaging 27.5 points per game (6th) which has yet to lose a game on the road this season (4-0) and has scored at least 24 points in each of its past six games.

Despite a 4-5 record that has the Falcons just ½ game behind the Panthers for a playoff spot, Atlanta has a minus-85 point differential this season. That’s the fourth-worst mark in the league, only ahead of the Lions (-110), Texans (-130) and Jets (-135) who have a combined three wins between them. How is that possible? In the Falcons five losses this season, they’ve been outscored by 99 points. In their four wins, they’ve outscored opponents by a total of 14 points, with three of those wins coming by three points or less.


Getting Trendy

The Patriots against-the-spread record has followed pretty closely to their actual performance this season; they started 2-4 ATS in their first six but have rattled off four straight victories against the number. Five of their past six games have also gone Over the total after starting the year with four-straight Unders. Bill Belichick has faced Atlanta six times in his career as the Patriots head coach, and New England has won and covered in all six (including the Super Bowl victory in 2017). Atlanta has been good as a home underdog in the Matt Ryan era, going 13-7 ATS in its past 20 such games (dating back to 2009). In those games, the Under has hit in 14 of the 20 contests, though the past two have gone Over.

Action Network is reporting some sharp action on the Falcons, but the bets (75%) and the money (77%) are heavily on the Patriots. As far as the total, 57% of the tickets are on the Over, including sharp action, but 52% of the money is on the Under.


Defense, Defense, Defense

Jones is getting a lot of praise this week, and rightfully so — he has been the best rookie QB in the NFL this season. Though, if you read our reports regularly, we said a couple of weeks ago that he looked better on tape than his numbers showed.

But the Patriots recent run of success has had a lot to do with their defense — New England is allowing the second-fewest points in the league (17.7), and only Buffalo has been better (15.0). Opposing quarterbacks are completing fewer than 60% of their passes against the Pats defense — one of three teams currently accomplishing that along with Buffalo and Denver — and they’ve intercepted 14 passes this season, which is tied with Dallas for second-most (Buffalo has 15). They’re led by J.C. Jackson, who is tied for second with Kevin Byard with five INTs (Dallas’ Trevon Diggs leads with 8 INT). New England is the only team that has three players with at least three interceptions (Jackson along with Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger, who each have three).

Generally, interceptions are a result of a strong pass rush that forces quarterbacks into bad decisions. However, the Pats have not been a great pass-rushing team this season. According to ESPN Analytics, the Patriots pass-rush win rate (how often a pass-rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds) is 39% this season, which is tied for 20th in the league. Among the four teams that have at least 12 team interceptions this season, the Patriots are the worst in pass-rush win rate. The Bills (8th, 46%), Cowboys (12th, 44%), and Rams (1st, 54%) are all at least 5% better than New England.

Matthew Judon has been their lone star on the defensive line, currently tied for fourth in the league with 9.5 sacks — no other Pats defender has recorded more than three. They’ve been helped by their opposition; 10 of their 14 interceptions have come against Zach Wilson (4), Sam Darnold (3), Mike White (2), and Tua Tagovailoa (1) — four quarterbacks all with QB ratings outside the Top 25 in the NFL.

New England’s schedule is also a major reason the team has allowed the second-fewest points in the league. Among the teams that the Patriots have played, only Dallas (1st, 31.6) and Tampa Bay (3rd, 31.0) rank in the Top 10 in points scored per game. New England lost to both teams. Their next-best offensive opponent was New Orleans (13th, 24.7), another Patriots’ loss. While they held Tampa under its points average (19), both Dallas (35) and New Orleans (28) scored more.

Next up would be the Chargers (15th, 24.3), who the Patriots defeated but allowed them to essentially reach their average (24). After that, no other opponent ranks in the top-half of the league in points. The Pats have played Houston (32nd), Miami (28th), the Jets twice (27th), Carolina (21st) and Cleveland (18th). This week, they get Atlanta (25th) before things get difficult. Over the next four games, New England will face Tennessee (5th), Buffalo twice (2nd) and Indianapolis (8th). We will know a lot more about this Patriots defense after that stretch.

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