The New England Patriots' potent offense delivered the goods in Sunday's 31-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and more of the same will be required until the team's injury-depleted defense finds its way.
The offense scored four touchdowns and executed a 53-yard drive in the final 3:42 that set up Adam Vinatieri's 19th career game-winning field goal with 20 seconds to play.
The good news is that RB Corey Dillon had his first strong outing of the season and QB Tom Brady was nearly unstoppable. Also, two Patriots veterans stepped forward with big plays to help the team regain its footing after last week's thrashing at the hands of the San Diego Chargers.
The bad news is that the defense couldn't stop the Falcons in the second quarter or the fourth quarter, even though Atlanta's star quarterback, Michael Vick, missed the game with an injury. Also, the team committed 11 penalties for 83 yards and for the third straight week failed to generate a takeaway.
"It was a heck of a football game," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "I'm really proud of our players. They stepped up and made the big plays when they had to. Atlanta's a real good team. They do a lot of things well. We certainly had our hands full with every aspect of their game. You've got to give all the credit in the world to the players. They played their hearts out. …. They withstood the assault and made enough plays to win. This is a team that believes a lot in itself, even if other people don't."
The Patriots seemed to have the game in hand in the third quarter, but the wheels came flying off. After mounting two impressive touchdown drives to take a 28-13 lead, Brady & Co. were back on the field driving again and moving the ball well when Brady threw an interception on a tipped ball with 35 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The New England defense came on the field needing to make a stop and bail out Brady. Instead, they yielded 15 points in the next 11:08, enabling the Falcons to tie the game at 28 with 3:52 remaining.
After the interception, the Falcons struck quickly, with backup QB Matt Schaub hitting TE Alge Crumpler for a 25-yard touchdown pass on Atlanta's second play to make the score 28-20.
The Patriots' offense got the ball twice early in the fourth quarter and could have iced the game with a score or at least chewed up valuable time with a long drive. But the first drive ended after penalties by TE Ben Watson (offensive pass interference) and OG Logan Mankins (holding) created a third-and-23 that New England could not convert. The second possession was a three-and-out. Combined output for the two possessions: 24 yards, one first down, two punts.
With 6:04 remaining and still trailing by 8, the Falcons started a drive at their own 38 and marched 62 yards in eight plays. RB Warrick Dunn carried four times for 30 yards on the drive, and Schaub threw 14 yards to Dez White for the touchdown. Atlanta needed a two-point conversion to tie the game and got it when Schaub connected with WR Brian Finneran.
With the score tied, the Patriots executed a trademark game-winning drive. Bethel Johnson got things started a 30-yard kickoff return to the Patriots' 36. Before moving forward, the Patriots put it in reverse with back-to-back penalties by Watson and OG Logan Mankins. The Falcons followed with penalties on each of the next two plays including a 30-yard pass interference call. Brady then hit TE Daniel Graham for eight yards and WR Deion Branch for nine before Patrick Pass went up the middle for 15 to put New England at the Atlanta 14, setting up Vinatieri's game-winner from 29 yards.
Dillon, who set a Patriots team record with 1,635 rushing yards in 2004, picked a good time to return to form with his team coming off a bad loss and facing a 3-1 team on the road. He hit the holes quickly used his blockers well, especially OG Stephen Neal, in picking up 106 yards on 23 carries.
Brady, meanwhile, had a virtuoso performance, completing 22 of 27 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. The highlight was a 55-yard touchdown pass to Johnson with 5:58 remaining in the third quarter. Brady also threw back-to back long strikes to tight ends Graham and Watson on the first two plays from scrimmage in the second half. Graham's catch covered 45 yards, and Watson's resulted in a 33-yard touchdown.
Graham showed tremendous poise and determination on a 45-yard scoring play in the second quarter. After Brady hit him with a short pass on the right side, Graham hurtled over Neal, who had flattened Falcons LB Demorrio Williams, then laid a hard shoulder into Safety Bryan Scott, who was trying to take him down. Following the recent injuries to veteran stalwarts Rodney Harrison, Matt Light and Kevin Faulk, the Patriots need those kind of tone-setting plays.
Special teams captain Larry Izzo also made a big difference in the game, making two strong tackles on two first-half returns. Pass also had two special teams tackles. Overall, the Patriots held the Falcons to an average of 19.8 yards on kick returns. Atlanta's lone punt return went for eight yards.
One place the Patriots did not improve was red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on all three Atlanta possessions inside the New England 20-yard line.
The New England defense had its moments, holding the Falcons to 116 yards rushing, after the Falcons had come in leading the NFL with 209 rushing yards per game. Safety Guss Scott, filling in for Harrison, and DE Ty Warren led the Patriots with six tackles apiece. The Falcons totaled 400 yards and converted five of 13 third-down conversions. Schaub completed 18 of 34 for 284 yards.
On offense, Graham had five catches for 119 yards, while WR Branch had eight for 107 yards. The Patriots totaled 483 yards.