ATLANTA – Starting off the season 3-0 was nice, but New England faced its stiffest challenge Sunday night in Atlanta against a Falcons club that, while talented, was wounded on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots could certainly relate, having plenty of medical issues of their own with which to deal. What looked like a war of attrition for most of the night wound up being a thrilling, high-scoring finish, as the Patriots came out on top 30-23 to improve to 4-0 at the quarter mark of 2013.
Here's what stood out from our vantage point in the Georgia Dome press box Sunday night:
…The Patriots' secondary looked rattled on the opening drive of the game, facing an upper-echelon quarterback for the first time this season. They allowed Atlanta to drive 75 yards, mostly through the air, before tightening up in the red zone and forcing a field goal.
…Cornerback Aqib Talib was matched up mostly on Falcons' number-one receiver Julio Jones. Not much of a surprise, of course. Talib mostly won their one-on-one battles, typified by his 4th-quarter interception on a pass intended for Jones. He had great position against Jones to go up and snatch the ball out of the air.
…The loss of defensive tackle/co-captain Vince Wilfork on the opening drive of the game (right ankle injury) forced defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to improvise. Rookie Joe Vellano took Wilfork's place. Rookie Chris Jones joined Vellano on the third series, replacing Tommy Kelly. First time this season he's had a chance to contribute on defense.
…I'm somewhat surprised that Patricia didn't elect to use more of the three-defensive end looks that we've come to expect from the Patriots in these opening games of 2013. With Atlanta throwing so much and Wilfork being unavailable, it seemed like it would have made sense to try to get more pressure on QB Matt Ryan using this personnel grouping. Apparently Patricia didn't agree.
…Some foolish penalties by Atlanta contributed to a stout second defensive series by New England.
…The officiating crew should have called a penalty against the Falcons on the ensuing punt, when a member of the punt team ran into Julian Edelman, who'd called for a fair catch. No flag was thrown, as the refs believed the Falcon was blocked into Edelman by Devin McCourty. Replays seemed to suggest that while McCourty was involved in the play, the Atlanta player looked like he deliberately launched himself into Edelman.
…The Patriots ran the ball very well on their second possession, using a combination of all three tailbacks – Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden. They were simply handing off and running straight up the middle, for the most part, exploiting an apparent weakness in the Falcons' front seven. This committee backfield strategy has been quite effective for New England of late.
…That committee temporarily took a hit when Bolden aggravated his right knee injury deep in the second quarter. He was already wearing a huge brace on that knee and had been listed on the injury report the past few weeks. After walking it off on the sideline, he returned to the game in the second half, however. Minor crisis averted.
…The rookie receivers have taken their share of flack in these first few weeks. Kenbrell Thompkins had yet another drop in the first quarter, but he more than made up for it in the second, when he came down with a 49-yard reception on an underthrown ball by Tom Brady that looked like it was surely going to be intercepted. Thompkins made a great adjustment on the ball and outmuscled the Falcons defender who was in much better position to make the catch. Thompkins came up big in the fourth as well, connecting with Brady on a 3rd-and-19 that went for 26 yards and a 1st down. He balanced that out with another really egregious drop in the 4th, then a dramatic diving touchdown catch two plays later.
…Second-year linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been struggling in pass coverage all season, and that continued against Atlanta much of the evening.
…That power running we saw in the first half seemed to slow down a bit in the third quarter. The Falcons appeared to make the necessary halftime adjustments to plug the gaping holes they were allowing earlier. That is, until Blount's 47-yard touchdown gallop in the 4th. The o-line did an excellent job opening up a hole left of center, which Blount hit with authority before kicking in his jets and out-running the Falcons' secondary. Great burst of speed by the big guy.
…Another questionable non-call by the officials came in the third quarter, when rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson looked like he seriously injured his neck trying to catch a pass in the end zone from Tom Brady. As he dove to the ground for the low ball, a Falcons defender slammed into him full-force, whipping his neck back violently. A flag could have – probably should have – been thrown for hitting a defenseless player in the neck/head area, but none came. Dobson spent several minutes on the ground while the medical staff treated him. He eventually walked off and underwent more treatment on the sideline.
…Rookie Josh Boyce, a non-factor thus far this season, came into the game to replace Dobson, who was taken to the locker room after several minutes on the bench. Boyce almost immediately made a catch that was wiped out by a defensive penalty on Atlanta, and then got open downfield on a go-route, but Brady didn't notice him and wound up throwing an incompletion out of bounds to the opposite side of the field. He wound up making his first catch as a pro later in the fourth quarter. It went for 24 yards.
…The officials made a questionable pass interference call on Talib, covering Roddy White on a deep pass in the 4th. Both players were hand-fighting for position and a non-call would've been a more equitable decision.
…The game got out of hand quickly for Atlanta after they'd trimmed the lead to 20-13, but rookie Zach Sudfeld's inability to hold onto an onside kick gave the Falcons life with just over four minutes to go.
…A first in my many years of covering the NFL: the replay system on the field broke down in the 4th quarter, preventing the ref from reviewing a challenged call by New England. It seemed insignificant at the time, because the game appeared out of reach, but when the Falcons began crawling back, a sideline catch by Julio Jones went unchallenged and may have been a case where replay may have made a difference. Atlanta wound up kicking a field goal to trim the lead to 7 again. Then, when the Patriots had a 3rd-down rush ruled short of the sticks, the replay suddenly began working again. Replays showed that Blount had picked up the first down, but the refs ruled otherwise and New England was forced to go for it on 4th down from the Falcons' 36-yard line. Brady fumbled the exchange and Atlanta took over on downs.
…Talib closed out his best game as a Patriot by knocking down the final pass attempt by Atlanta in the end zone to secure the win.