FOXBORO — In a recent meeting, Patriots coach Bill Belichick stood before his players and threw down the gauntlet.
“There will come a point in the season where we’re going to have to go for it,” Belichick told his team. “And we’re going to have to get it.”
On Sunday against Atlanta, that point Belichick spoke of arrived with just over five minutes left in the third quarter. Holding a slim 16-10 lead and facing a fourth-and-1 at their own 24-yard line, the decision was made — the Patriots were going to go for it. And they had to get it. If they missed out, they would be giving the Falcons the ball deep in New England territory, and a chance to retake the lead. But if the Patriots got the first down, it could be the sort of landmark, character-defining moment for a team that is still searching for an identity.
Running back Sammy Morris got the ball and went between center Dan Koppen and right guard Stephen Neal, right into the heart of the Atlanta defense and ground out 2 yards. The 68,756 in attendance erupted. First down, Patriots.
“Thank God we got it,” veteran running back Fred Taylor recalled after the game with a smile.
“I felt like we could get a yard,” explained Belichick after the game. “There would have been plenty of criticism if we didn’t.”
New England would face another fourth-down situation later in the same drive, but this one held far less drama — by that time, the Patriots were already well into Atlanta territory, and a 21-yard pass from Tom Brady to Randy Moss allowed the Patriots to pick up the first down. New England finished that drive with a field goal to take a 19-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, and would tack on a late touchdown to put the game out of reach (check out the full game recap here).
But that successful fourth-down conversion, and the series that came after it, was one of the first times all season where the Patriots showed a flash of some of that familiar championship spark. Instead of waiting for the opposition to give them something, they were able to take it, imposing their will on an opponent and recalling the days of the 2003 and 2004 Patriots.
“It was a big play for us,” Brady said. “We had a few third-and-1s this season — fourth-and-1 against Buffalo that we missed, a third-and-1 against the Jets we missed.
“It was a good day. It was a good day,” added the quarterback, who finished 25-for-42 for 277 yards and one touchdown. “There were a lot of positives to take from it, and I think we’re learning a little bit each time we play. Hopefully, we keep it going.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
BRANDON McGOWAN IS BECOMING AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE NEW ENGLAND DEFENSE
The 26-year-old safety started training camp as a spare part, an extra defensive back who was considered a long shot to make the 53-man roster. But he had an excellent training camp. In the preseason, he showed a real knack for being around the ball, forcing fumbles and delivering big hits.
On Sunday, he caused great havoc all afternoon. Early on, he had a nice takedown of the ball-carrier on a kick return, played very well when matched up against Atlanta all-world tight end Tony Gonzalez and delivered a crushing hit on Matt Ryan midway through the second quarter on a ball that ended up going as an incomplete pass. In addition, he had the forced fumble on Michael Turner late in the second quarter.
In the end, he was all over the scoresheet — he had four tackles, one quarterback hit, one forced fumble and one special teams tackle
“It seems like he does a good job for us every week in the kicking game and on defense,” Belichick said of the Maine product. “He’s involved in a lot of plays, makes tackles, and is a good coverage player.”
McGowan was able to do a good job setting the tone for a defense that stiffened up in the second half without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was lost late in the first half after injuring his left ankle defending a run by Atlanta running back Michael Turner. His aggressiveness and feistiness helped spark the defense in pitching a second-half shutout.
“Whenever you don’t give up points in a half, it’s a good thing,” McGowan said. “But that’s what we shoot for the entire game — no points in the first half or the second.”
RANDY MOSS IS CONTINUING TO EVOLVE AS A RECEIVER
In the wake of last week’s Jets-Patriots game at the Meadowlands, New York linebacker Bart Scott disparaged Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss, telling SNY that Moss “was coming across that middle real slow. Tell him to man up next time and come across the middle like a man if he wants to be a complete receiver.”
The thing is, Moss has come across the middle on short routes this season more than he ever has in the past. There appears to be fewer shots downfield and more crossing patterns over the middle. Entering this season, he had a career average of 15.7 yards per catch. This season, he’s averaging 10.8 yards per reception.
On Sunday, he had 10 receptions for 116 yards, many of them absolutely vital to the success of the New England offense. There was a 21-yard reception down the Patriots sideline on fourth-and-3 that kept an important New England drive alive. And on that same drive, there was a sweet 21-yard hookup over the middle.
But more often than not, Moss — who was questionable this week with a back injury — was targeted in short situations, and his ability to break off several of those short plays was a big part of the Patriots win.
“He played great. He played great. He made some big catches for us,” Brady said of Moss, who was targeted a game-high 16 times on the afternoon. “He ran a lot of routes, so I’m sure he’s going to be tired tonight. He’s a great player, and we’ve got to get him involved in the game, more so even than last week.”
CONTINUING TO SETTLE FOR FIELD GOALS IN THE RED ZONE ISN’T A FORMULA FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS
There were plenty of points — 26, the most for a Patriots team since a 47-7 romp over Arizona in the snow at Gillette Stadium last December — but for the third straight game, New England left an awful lot of points out on the field. The Patriots were 1-for-5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, with the one successful conversion coming on an 8-yard run from Fred Taylor in the second quarter.
On the heels of their 0-for-3 red-zone performance last week against the Jets, it’s a sad stretch for an offense that has so many talented options.
“It’s just execution,” said Brady, who was 3-for-10 for 10 yards in the red zone on Sunday. “It’s everybody being on the same page and making the reads and throws, and something we’ll evaluate and look at. We can’t keep kicking field goals, I know that. We’ve got to be better than that.”
Taylor, who has two of the four red zone touchdowns for the Patriots this season (the other two are touchdown passes from Brady to Benjamin Watson in the season-opener against the Bills) believes that things are going to get better for the New England offense.
“It’s coming,” said Taylor, the only Patriots running back to account for a red zone touchdown. “We’re going to keep pounding away at it. I don’t want to sit here and B.S. you and search for an answer, but I really believe its coming.”
FRED TAYLOR HAS SOMETHING LEFT IN THE TANK
The veteran was impressive all day long, but he was at his best early in the second quarter when he accounted for 41 of the Patriots' 51 yards, including an impressive 19-yard carry on which he managed to make something out of nothing. Taylor ended the day with a game-high 105 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The 33-year-old, who passed John Riggins for 15th place on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with the previously mentioned 19-yard carry, gave credit to the offensive line for making his job a whole lot easier.
“They did most of the work,” Taylor said of his 8-yard scoring drive. “They handled the down linemen. The linebackers, they didn’t maintain discipline in their gap assignment. My job was just to run straight — I didn’t do much. I didn’t do much. On the touchdown run, you see, I walked into the end zone.”
Laurence Maroney had four rushes for 17 yards in the early going, but he left with a thigh injury in the second quarter and did not return. As a result, the other active backs (Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris) saw an increase in their carries. But the real winner was Taylor, who hit double digits in carries for the first time in a New England uniform.
“He ran great. He’s really shifty, so even when there’s not a lot of room in there, he makes yards whenever we give him the ball,” Brady said. “He’s a really good player for us and we’ve got to get him the ball.”
TOM BRADY IS NOT HAPPY WITH SOME ASPECTS OF THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE
After a second-quarter drive stalled in the red zone, the quarterback raged on the sidelines, appearing to be angry about a series of miscommunications with his wide receivers. Specifically, things boiled over after incomplete passes to Joey Galloway and Sam Aiken — Galloway was unable to hold on to a pass over the middle, while Aiken appeared to break off a route in the end zone.
After the game, Brady took issue with the idea that he was frustrated.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said when asked about his actions at the end of the first half. “I think I was just really into it and trying to keep everyone focused.”
Brady has publicly expressed his displeasure on several occasions in the past, but this was his first real outburst toward his teammates in many years. After the game, his teammates said that was just a case of Tom being Tom.
“He’s always speaking to us. He motivates us — he’s a competitor,” Taylor said. “He makes sure that we’re not going to fall into complacency. He’s a great person and a great player. Thank God he’s on this team.”
WHEN IT COMES TO DEFENDING TONY GONZALEZ, THE PATRIOTS ARE CONSISTENT
The tight end said the defense New England used to render him ineffective was something the Patriots have used several times in the past — bracket coverage. According to Gonzalez, it was what New England had used to defend him when he was in Kansas City, and it was what the Patriots used Sunday to limit him to just one catch for 16 yards.
“Every time I play against [Coach Belichick], it seems like I’m going to get bracketed,” Gonzalez said, describing a modified double-team that has to have defensive backs work together in coverage if it is to be successful. “It was expected, and obviously, it is not a good thing for me — although, it gets everyone else open.
“I’ve been around a long time, and for me, it is somewhat a sign of respect. I feel that if I get single coverage, I am going to make them pay for it eventually,” Gonzalez added. “It is the same thing they have always done the last couple of times I have played against them. You have to give them credit for it.”
Gonzalez was never a factor on Sunday, and he had his worst career outing against the Patriots. (He had one catch for 17 yards against the Patriots in 2002.)
“The plan was for him to not have any catches and he had one, so obviously, the plan failed, huh?” McGowan said, tongue in cheek.
NO ONE CAN SELL IT QUITE LIKE LEIGH BODDEN
The Falcons were driving into New England territory midway through the third quarter when they decided to go for it. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went to air it out down the Patriots sideline for wide receiver Michael Jenkins, who was in single coverage with New England cornerback Leigh Bodden.
The Falcons felt good about this matchup — two plays before, Jenkins had beaten Bodden down the same sideline for a sweet 26-yard connection, a ball Ryan gently lofted over Jenkins' shoulder, making it impossible for Bodden to get anywhere near it.
But this time, Bodden and Jenkins got tangled up, and Bodden was able to draw the pass interference call. It was a flag that could have gone either way, but Bodden’s ability to get locked up with the receiver was enough to sell the call in the Patriots’ favor.
In the same way that the successful fourth-down conversion turned things around for the New England offense, the pass interference seemed to shake the Atlanta offense — the Falcons never got closer than the Patriots’ 38-yard line the rest of the way.
“We need to do a better job of responding to that,” Ryan said. “We came out and didn’t do much offensively after that. Sometimes, things aren’t going to go your way during the game, and it’s what you do in those situations that really says what kind of football team you are. That is certainly something that we can improve on.”
IN THE WAKE OF THE INJURY TO VINCE WILFORK, THE MOST ENCOURAGING NEWS MAY HAVE COME FROM MYRON PRYOR
Wilfork went down with a left ankle injury late in the first half, an injury sustained in the wake of a Michael Turner run. Wilfork was down for a couple of minutes before being helped to his feet. He then walked off the field under his own power. On the sidelines, trainers examined the ankle before Wilfork and the staff went to the locker room. He did not return for the second half.
In his absence, the Patriots rotated in rookie Myron Pryor. Pryor ended the day with three assisted tackles. While Belichick did not have an update on Wilfork after the game (“I haven’t seen him. I came right in here so I could talk with you guys. I haven’t really had a chance to see him,” Belichick said), Pryor told reporters after the game about an optimistic-sounding conversation he had after the game with Wilfork.
“He congratulated me after the game and told me, ‘Good job,’ ” Pryor said of his postgame conversation with Wilfork. “I felt like I did well out there. It took a couple plays to get back in the mix. I really had to step back, as far as tempo. At first, I was kind of nervous, but after a while, I just settled in and mentally, everything went smoothly.”
“There’s a lot of depth on the defensive line, especially with Myron [Pryor] stepping in and Ron [Brace] stepping in,” said defensive lineman Mike Wright, who went down with an undisclosed injury of his own in the fourth quarter. “Hopefully, we’ll have Vince back as soon as possible.”
THE PATRIOTS KNOW AN EVEN TOUGHER TEST LIES AHEAD
Maybe it’s not good to use the Browns as a barometer — right now, they would appear to struggle to defeat Wellesley High. But after what Baltimore did to Cleveland on Sunday, it’s clear the Patriots will face their sternest test of the season next Sunday when they host the Ravens.
Simply put, New England will need to play better than it did through the first three weeks of the season if it wants to go toe-to-toe with Baltimore. The Ravens' world-class defense is complemented by a talented young quarterback in Joe Flacco (after three weeks, Flacco has two 300-yard games and six passing touchdowns) and a strong running game led by Willis McGahee. At this stage of the season, the 3-0 Ravens look like the class of the AFC.
“It looks like they’re playing very well, as they usually are,” Belichick said. “[We will] just try to keep going, but enjoy this one for a little bit and then turn the page and get into the Ravens.”