Patriots cruise over unwatchable Falcons in Super Bowl rematch

Not sure if you heard, but the two teams that matched up on Sunday night? Patriots and Falcons? Turns out they played another game a few months ago! I know, right? Who knew?

Atlanta and New England headlined Sunday’s NFL slate in a rematch of Super Bowl LI, and if you forgot that for even an instant, NBC was more than happy to remind you. Back in the Super Bowl, you may recall, the Falcons demonstrated unprecedented firepower for 2½ quarters and unprecedented incompetence for the rest of the way. “28-3” signs, referencing the score when Tom Brady began his unbelievable comeback — why are we telling you this, you know what 28-3 references — dotted the stadium and the night’s narrative. Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth footnoted literally every player and coach on both sides with how they performed in the Super Bowl.

And the Patriots won the sequel 23-7, just like they won the original 34-28. Like most sequels this side of “Godfather Part II” or “The Empire Strikes Back,” this one was thoroughly unsatisfying for everyone but fans rooting for the Patriots, NFC South opponents pulling for a Falcons misfire, or the odd fantasy player banking on a big Gronk game. The game’s only real highlight? Fog that rolled in and mercifully, for the Falcons, rendered the game all but invisible.

Early on, Sunday night was a pale shadow of last year’s classic. Brady took two sacks as the Patriots racked up more penalties than yards from scrimmage, and Matt Ryan’s impressive pass artistry with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu across midfield stalled anytime the Falcons got near the red zone.

But then the Patriots opened the second quarter with one of those classic New England drives — Brady found a wide-open Chris Hogan to convert a third-and-16; the Falcons eliminated their own end zone interception with a roughing-the-passer penalty — and the Patriots literally marched into the end zone, as Brandin Cooks cruised in Rob Gronkowski’s wake to put New England up 7-0. New England later tacked on a field goal and a touchdown in the waning seconds of the first half while the Falcons flailed, and the game hit halftime with the Patriots up 17-0.

The second half didn’t go any better for the Falcons, as their opening drive ended with a second missed field goal, and a first-and-goal situation early in the fourth ended with the Falcons coming away with absolutely nothing. A garbage-time score, with Jones reaching over Malcolm Butler to bull his way to an impressive but meaningless touchdown, only served to remind Falcons fans, and the league, just how far from its potential this team is playing.

Where do these two teams go from here? The Patriots, at least for a night, appeared to be exactly the team that owned the league last year. Brady was on point, the receiving and rushing attacks were equally viable, and even the maligned defense stepped up and shut out what should have been an all-out Atlanta attack. You knew the Patriots wouldn’t flounder forever, and it’s possible they’ve found their footing stepping over the bones of their most recent Super Bowl victims.

Atlanta, on the other hand, is adrift and a mess. The Falcons spent most of the offseason insisting that the departure of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan would have no effect on the team, and have spent the past three games, all losses, demonstrating that Shanahan’s absence is a huge, critical factor. Atlanta has the reigning MVP, one of the greatest receivers in the game, and a two-headed rushing attack that’s the equal of any in the league … and the Falcons don’t just look bad, they look incompetent. This is the exact same team that stormed to the Super Bowl last year, and you’d be hard pressed right now to think this crew can crack .500 this season.

So the 28-3 reunion is over at last, and like most reunions, it was unsatisfying and there’s no need to do it again anytime soon. The Patriots look like they’re in position to make a run back to the Super Bowl. The Falcons, meanwhile, look like they’re trying to get the disappointment out of the way a lot earlier this season.

Tom Brady and the Patriots challenged Atlanta in a Super Bowl rematch. (Getty)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.