FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Tom Brady spent Sunday afternoon at home carving pumpkins with his children. He spent Sunday night leading the New England Patriots to a 23-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at foggy Gillette Stadium, with his parents (Tom Sr. and Galynn) watching from the stands.

“That made for a pretty perfect day,” he said.

That it did. The Patriots served notice to the rest of the NFL Sunday night that they are, still, the Patriots, the defending champs, the preseason choice by many to repeat as Super Bowl champion. Their early-season struggles, the two home losses already, suddenly seem long ago.

They are 5-2, winners of three in a row. And the reason for this optimism and confidence is … the defense.

Yes, a defense that entered Sunday’s game as one of the worst, if not the worst, in the NFL, allowing nearly 325 passing yards and 27 points a game. That defense was without two of its top three cornerbacks, as Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe were once again out with injuries. Yet they throttled the Falcons and Matt Ryan – who incredibly became the first quarterback this year to NOT throw for 300 yards against New England – and sucked all the drama out of the hype that was the Super Bowl LI rematch.

Unlike that championship game played eight months ago, when the Patriots rallied from a 25-point deficit to win 34-28 in overtime, they Patriots didn’t need any historic comebacks this time.

No, the Patriots reached back into their championship formula and won this game in throwback fashion: running the ball (162 yards), special teams (a blocked field goal by Cassius Marsh) and defense.

The Patriots continually turned back the Falcons whenever they threatened. The Falcons were only 2 for 9 on third down, 1 for 3 on fourth down. Cornerbacks Johnson Bademosi, Jonathan Jones and Malcolm Butler blanketed game-breaking receivers such as Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.

“We didn’t make all of the plays,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “But when big plays came up we were able to make those plays.”

It was a most impressive – and unlikely – performance against one of the more dangerous offenses in the NFL.

“We knew what we were always capable of,” said second-year defensive tackle Trey Flowers. “We just had to put it together.”

“Play in, play out, 11 guys were on the same page,” said safety Devin McCourty.

New England lost its shutout with a garbage-time, 1-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Jones, who plucked the ball out of Butler’s hands in the end zone. Ryan threw for 233 yards, but 66 came on that final drive, with the Patriots leading 23-0.

“We’re just better,” said safety Duron Harmon. “We continue to improve each week. From the Panthers game (a 33-30 home loss) on until now, we just continue to get better each and every week. We continue to come to work, work together, try to find the best combination of players that we can put out there and everybody that goes out there continues to do a great job and just work hard.”

It started early. Atlanta had a first-and-10 at the Patriots 19 late in the first quarter. After Butler came flying up to cut down running back Tevin Coleman for no gain, Ryan threw two incompletions. Matt Bryant came in to kick a 37-yard field goal but Marsh came in from the right to block it, keeping the game scoreless.

The Patriots went on to score a touchdown on the ensuing drive. Then the defense forced a three-and-out by the Falcons. The Patriots went in to score again, on a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

New England then stopped Atlanta on a fourth-and-7 from the New England 48, Ryan’s pass to Sanu incomplete, with Jones in coverage. The Patriots drove down to go ahead 17-0 on Brady’s 2-yard pass to James White.

The defense stepped up in the third quarter, forcing the Falcons to try another field goal by Bryant. This one hit the left upright.

Then in the fourth quarter, with New England up 20-0, the Falcons had a fourth-and-goal from the New England 1. The Falcons went with a jet sweep to the right by Gabriel. Flowers, seeing Gabriel coming in motion toward him, busted through to knock Gabriel off course, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy came in the finish him off for a five-yard loss.

“The D kept making plays, and we kept going out there and chipping away,” said Brady.

The defensive backs cited communication, physical play and sticking to the game plan. They knew they had to stand up to Atlanta’s receivers. They never gave them any breathing room.

“We all just came out fighting,” said Jones. “It’s like a domino effect. You come out with good energy, make one stop and they keep adding up. Get up on them early and keep at it.”

That’s the way the Patriots won championships in the past. That’s the way they need to play going forward. Brady – as good as he still is – can’t will them to a victory in every game.

But this wasn’t just the defense’s best game of the season. It was the Patriots’ best complementary game of the season: offense, defense, special teams. Everyone contributed. This was the Patriots at their best. And they need to keep moving forward.

“As a team, we’re happy as far as how we managed the game,” said Flowers. “We’re going to look at the film and see that we missed some opportunities here and there. We can always be better, but this was a step in the right direction.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH