If the 2013 Patriots do turn out to be a championship team, we can look back on the Sept. 29 game against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome as the night where they took a sizable step forward.
And while there was a lot to like about what New England did on the offensive side of the ball Sunday night, after three weeks of being roundly derided for fattening up on a cupcake schedule, it turns out that this New England defense is leaner and meaner than folks have given it credit for. The Patriots dominated the Falcons for three-plus quarters, holding the high-voltage Atlanta offense to just 13 points until midway through the fourth quarter. And while there were some panicky moments down the stretch, New England got one more terrific play out of cornerback Aqib Talib -- who knocked away a pass in the end zone for Roddy White with less than a minute left -- to come away with a 30-23 win.
It wasn't pretty or all that efficient, but it will certainly earn the Patriots more style points than wins over the Jets, Bills and Buccaneers. This was an Atlanta team that made it all the way to the NFC title game last season. Even with the late breakdowns on defense and the loss of Vince Wilfork, for the Patriots and the pass defense in particular, this is the sort of win that looks good on the resume at the end of the season. Really, it was a victory borne out of mental toughness that looks all the more impressive when you consider that the Pats were able to come away with a 'W' and simultaneously cross off another date on the calendar that gets them closer to the return of Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen.
“We slugged it out,” quarterback Tom Brady said with a sigh once the game was done. “We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play. They have a very good team. It’s nice to win and be 4-0.”
“I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They made a good example of what it takes to win in the league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football. We have to do a better job of finishing out the game. Obviously we could have played a little better in the end, but it’s good to be 4-0 and get out of here with a win.”
The knock on the defense through the first three games was that it hadn’t faced anyone of substance. But for three-plus quarters against the Falcons -- a team with more high-wattage offensive star power than most anyone else in the league -- New England dominated. The Falcons were a hot mess, unable to sustain drives or move the ball with any sort of consistency. They were 1-for-6 in the red zone, operating with backup offensive linemen and taking a ton of ill-timed penalties. Talib was harassing Julio Jones all over the field, and White clearly was not at full strength. In truth, the only Atlanta skill position player who showed up for four quarters was old warhorse Tony Gonzalez, who came away with 14 catches for 149 yards and a touchdown.
But the game wasn’t over until Talib made a play on Ryan's pass intended for White in the corner of the end zone, securing the win that allowed the Patriots to go to 4-0 on the season for the first time since 2007, and just the third time under Belichick. (For what it’s worth, the two previous occasions the Patriots went 4-0 out of the gate were 2004 and 2007, both of which ended with trips to the Super Bowl.)
While there have been all sorts of defensive standouts over the first four games -- including Chandler Jones, Tommy Kelly, Rob Ninkovich and Devin McCourty -- no one has played bigger than Talib. On the heels of a fantastic summer, he’s made a case as being the most impactful cornerback on the roster over the last decade -- in a short time, he’s proven to be every bit as important to the franchise as Asante Sanuel was in 2007 or Ty Law in 2003.
Truth be told, it’s a little unfair to measure a corner by the number of picks he has, but Talib has four through the first four games, and he could be on pace for one of the great seasons by any cornerback in the recent history of the franchise. One opposing scout said this week that Talib “has made himself a very steady player” in the New England system, and after what he did against Jones for the better part of three-plus quarters, you’d be hard-pressed to find a personnel man out there worth his salt who believes otherwise. Talib dominated Jones for most of the night … in much the same way he dominated Vincent Jackson and Santonio Holmes before that.
He’s not a classic shutdown corner, but he does a better job than just about anyone who has cycled through Foxboro over the course of the last decade when it comes to taking out the opposition's longest and most physical receiver. And he’s certainly proving that the one-year, $5 million deal the Pats signed him to in the offseason was some of the smartest money the team has ever spent. Courtesy of Rotoworld’s Evan Silva, here are the numbers for the oppositions No. 1 wide receivers against New England through the first four games of the season.
Johnson: three catches, 39 yards, one touchdown
Holmes: three catches, 51 yards
Jackson: three catches, 34 yards
Jones: 13 catches, 108 yards
Even with Jones’ ridiculous fourth-quarter grab that went for 49 yards (Talib wasn’t in coverage) and with the understanding that Talib hasn’t been responsible for all of it, that still figures out to 22 catches for 232 yards and a touchdowns -- an average of 5.5 catches, 58 yards and less than one touchdown a game. Against the opposition's leading receiver. Bottom line is that it’s hard to argue that any defensive acquisition the Patriots have made over the last five years has had a greater impact than Talib.
“Aqib’s played great for us all year, all the way back to the spring training camp,” Belichick said. “He’s stepped up in every game, played well, played the ball well, played against good receivers, and he’s tackled well, he’s covered well. He’s done a good job for us.”
“I get to practice against him every day, so I know what kind of player he is,” Brady told NBC after the game. “What unbelievable talent — he brings so much leadership to our team, and it’s just been a great treat having him. I hope he plays like this all year; he’s a great player.”
No, it wasn’t perfect. There were errors, drops and blown coverage. The defense almost certainly will get an earful for its fourth-quarter play Sunday night, and it will have to find some way to replace Vince Wilfork, who reportedly is done for the season because of an Achilles injury he suffered in the first quarter.
But after Sunday, it’s clear that Talib and the Patriots have put the word out: Test the New England pass defense at your own peril. We’ll bend, but it’s going to take something pretty extraordinary to break us.
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night about the Patriots.
THEY NEED TO REPLACE VINCE WILFORK
The report that Wilfork likely is lost for the season is a difficult blow for the New England defense, which had progressed very nicely over the course of the first three games of the season and showed a real feistiness for the first three-plus quarters against the Falcons. Going forward, expect more responsibility to fall on the shoulders of Tommy Kelly, who has played very well over the course of his first four games. Without Wilfork, the Patriots went with youngster Joe Vellano in the middle, and while he held up pretty well at the point of attack (something that needs to be verified by going back and watching the film) and came away with his first career sack, there were moments where he struggled. Going forward, one possible move could be a decision to shift to a 3-4 defensive set, as Kelly does have some experience at the nose tackle spot -- albeit on a limited basis. (The Patriots then can utilize Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as defensive ends in that scheme.) There also are a handful of available free agents, like veteran Casey Hampton, who remain on the open market. But the loss of Wilfork will be felt across the locker room, as his wisdom, leadership skills and continued high level of play make him one of the most respected players on the roster.
THE PATRIOTS DON’T NEED TO THROW TO WIN
Part of it was because of the superior play from the offensive line and the running game -- as well as some of the best extended compementary football the team has played all year -- but Brady and the rest of the New England offense were in complete control for three-plus quarters, with the quarterback working the Falcons masterfully. Brady only attempted nine passes in the first half on the way to a 10-10 game after two quarters. (In that stretch, Brady was 5-for-9 for 96 yards and a touchdown, but two of the incompletes came on dropped balls -- one from Thompkins and one from Dobson.) Not sure the last time Brady only attempted nine passes in one half, but he made up for it in the second half, ending 20-for-31 for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. At first glance, he appeared to be the one at fault for the botched snap that led to the fourth-quarter fumble, so it won’t go into the pantheon of great Brady performances on the national stage, but given his stat line over the first quarter of the season, it’s his best of the year to date.
KENBRELL THOMPKINS IS READY FOR THE SHOW
Thompkins was the unquestioned offensive star of the night for New England. He ended up with some bad drops but managed to erase all the bad feeling with lots of good, coming away with a six catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. His personal highlight of the night came when he connected with Brady on a 49-yard pass play in the second quarter, a heave from the quarterback on which Thompkins went up and fought for the ball against the Atlanta defenders in coverage. It highlighted all the good things we have seen to this point from Thompkins: his ability to compete for balls at their high point, his speed and his body control. (It was the longest pass play of the season for the Patriots, besting the 39-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson in Week 2 against the Jets.) There were at least two drops, but ultimately, like Thompkins' work in Week 2 and Week 3, Sunday night represented another step forward for the young receiver.
JULIAN EDELMAN IS A NO. 1 RECEIVER
Understand this about Julian Edelman: The Patriots are not sitting at 4-0 right now if he’s not on this team. The former college quarterback has been the steadiest and most consistent presence in the passing game over the first quarter of the season, and he rose to the challenge Sunday night against the Falcons. He started slowly -- part of that was because of New England’s commitment to the run in the early going more than anyone else -- but finished with a flourish, coming away with seven catches for 118 yards. On the year, he has a team-high 34 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns, and it appears that it’ll be a foregone conclusion he’ll set career highs for catches and receiving yards (37 and 359, set as a rookie in 2009). The only one of Brady’s receivers to have a better four-game start to his season was Wes Welker, who had 40 catches through the first four games of the 2011 season. (As long as we’re bringing up Welker, it’s important to note that -- as colleague Tom E. Curran Tweeted Sunday night -- Edelman compares favorably to the production offered by Welker through the first four games of the 2013 season. To this point in his four-game career with the Broncos, Welker has 26 catches for 266 yards and six touchdowns.)
THEY NEED MORE DEPTH AT WIDE RECEIVER
The Patriots lost Aaron Dobson in the second half to a neck injury after the rookie got crunched in the end zone going for a ball that would have been a touchdown. (He ended the game with one catch for 10 yards.) He left the game and didn’t return, and when you factor in the loss of Danny Amendola (who didn’t make the trip), New England suddenly is fairly thin at the wide receiver spot. The Patriots were able to get some quality snaps out of Josh Boyce for the first time all season and he came away with his first catch of the year, a 24-yard gain in the second half. If Dobson and/or Amendola isn’t ready to go, Boyce could be in line for more work next week against the Bengals. But if both are out, the Patriots will likely be forced to do some creative game-planning between now and then when it comes to the wide receiver spot.
RUNNING BACK BY COMMITTEE STILL WORKS
The Patriots were able to keep up their running back rotation throughout the night, utilizing all three of their healthy backs -- Blount, Ridley and Brandon Bolden -- in a variety of ways while helping keep the chains moving. The star early was Ridley, who accounted for 50 yards on the 75-yard drive that gave New England its first scoring drive. (He ended with 11 carries for 58 yards -- and in a bit of a surprise, had two catches for 26 yards.) Blount had nine carries for 64 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown in the second half that marked the first second-half touchdown of the season for the Patriots and first rushing touchdown of the year for the team. Bolden was used in a limited role, coming away with six carries for 17 yards. So much of the success was due to the work of the offensive line, which managed to carve out sizable holes while going against the Falcons (who entered the game fifth in the league in run defense, having yielded 79 yards a game). In all, the Patriots ran the ball 31 times for 132 yards and a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. Given the opposition and the context in which the yards were gained, it represents the high-water mark of the year for the New England running game.
THEY CAN GET PRODUCTION OUT OF THE TIGHT END SPOT
It won’t make anyone forget about the glory days of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but the Patriots got their first touchdown of the season out of the tight end position Sunday when Matthew Mulligan -- the pride of Penobscot Valley High School in Howland, Maine -- came away with his first catch as a member of the New England offense. Brady found him with a 1-yard pass zipped into him between a pair of defenders for the score, which put the Patriots on the board. While Michael Hoomanawanui appeared to have another solid outing when it came to working as a blocker (particularly in the run game), it wasn’t all great news for the New England tight ends: Rookie Zach Sudfeld, inserted as part of the hands team on an onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter, couldn’t corral the ball, and the Falcons recovered the kick, which led to a late touchdown.
THEY CAN CONVERT IN THE RED ZONE
The Patriots offense, which entered the game last in red zone conversion rate (the Pats scored touchdowns on just 30 percent of their trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line, going 4-for-13) ended up going 2-for-3 in the red zone against the Falcons, coming away with a pair of touchdown passes -- one from Brady to Mulligan in the first quarter and a second from Brady to Thompkins in the fourth quarter. It marked the first time this year the Patriots were over 50 percent, and it sparks some optimism that they will be able to continue on the right track next week when they travel to Cincinnati to face the Bengals. (On the other side of the ball, the Falcons were an astonishingly poor 1-for-6 in their red zone chances, including settling for a field goal on their first trip, misfiring on a fourth-and-2 from the New England 7-yard line midway through the second quarter, and Ryan and White not being able to connect on Atlanta’s final play from scrimmage when Talib broke up the pass play in the end zone.)
THE PATRIOTS STILL NEED SOME WORK WHEN IT COMES TO FINISHING GAMES
The most distressing thing to come out of Sunday night’s game? New England had issues closing out an Atlanta team that had struggled in the fourth quarter dating back to last year. The Patriots entered Sunday’s game having played three pretty complete games -- dating back to the regular-season opener earlier in the month against the Bills and continuing with the Jets and Bucs, they had allowed zero fourth-quarter points. That, combined with the fact that the Falcons had struggled late this season (they had just 10 fourth-quarter points on the year, and their two losses before Sunday were the result of losing second-half leads) seemed to be an indication that New England’s fourth-quarter advantage was in pretty good hands. However, Atlanta was able to throw a scare into the Patriots down the stretch, and if it wasn’t for a nice play by Talib at the end of the game, there’s the very real chance that game was bound for overtime. While there was an awful lot to like about this one from New England’s perspective, the late struggles will be a major sore spot when the team assembles to watch the film Monday.