]()No matter how many front line players the Patriots were missing, the Falcons without Michael Vick got top billing. That was the situation as Vick was downgraded Saturday night to questionable and then became a game day scratch.
His replacement, Matt Schaub (18 of 38, 298 yards, 3 TDs), played well in his stead and almost engineered a win for his team but the passing of Tom Brady with, finally, the running of Corey Dillon, saved the day for the Patriots. It took another game-winning field goal by Adam Vinatieri in the game's waning seconds but the win was exactly what New England needed heading into Denver next week.
Brady was 22 of 27 passing for 350 yards and 3 touchdowns. Dillon was back to his 100-yard ways with 106 on 23 carries but was missing from the sidelines in the fourth quarter. No word on his situation was available as of this writing.
Dein Branch led the Patriots with 8 catches for 107 yards but it was big Daniel Graham who broke out with 5 catches for 119 yards and a 45-yard touchdown run.
The very early going remained scoreless but it seemed the Falcons were just missing on offense. A couple of passes from Matt Schaub for big yards should have been caught but weren't, and that allowed the Patriots defense to get off the field.
The offense took advantage with a drive that began with with just under nine minutes left in the first quarter. On third and 2, whoever was calling the plays, had a gutsy notion for Brady to look deep to Branch. Branch had to slow down a bit with Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall in coverage but the completion went for 51 yards to the Falcons 23. From there, Dillon worked th ball to the 6 on three runs. Then, Georgia's own Patrick Pass ran it in for the game's first score.
]()New England doubled its lead on its next drive with a little second down swing pass from Brady to Daniel Graham that the big tight end took down the right sideline, breaking a string of tackles along the way, until he found the end zone. It was one of the best runs by a New England tight end in many, many years.
Unfazed, Schaub opened the second quarter by hitting Brian Finneran on a 53-yard post pattern. The play came after two Patriots defensive penalites. A third came immediately after the play, holding on Eugene Wilson, and the ball moved to the 2-yard line. From there, fullback Justin Griffith came out of the backfield completely alone and Schaub found him for an easy touchdown pass.
Up to this point, Dillon was running well behind an offensive line getting good push. That trend continued on the Patriots next drive with runs of 7, 10 and two more for 11 each. But an 8-yard sack of Brady by Brady Smith halted the drive's momentum and the Patriots punted.
Both defenses looked shaky in the first half but in that department the Patriots' got the edge as play moved to the two-minute warning. A mix of Dunn runs and Schaub passes had the Falcons in the midst of a 14-play drive and on the Patriots 5-yard line and second down. Alge Crumpler was good for two catches of 13 and 24 yards but it was Dunn doing most of the damage. That's when the Patriots finally got some pressure on Atlanta's journeyman quarterback, first forcing him to throw the ball away and then bull-rushing him into a Rosevelt Colvin sack.
That play forced a 32-yard field goal from Todd Peterson to make the score 14-10 with 1:25 showing in the first half.
That's just the type of situation Brady and his offesne thrives on but this time an offensive pass interference penalty on first down was a killer and New England wound up punting with more than a minute left.
A holding call on Atlanta negated a 50-yard return by Allen Rossum but Atlanta still managed to move the ball to the New England 40 with six seconds left with two passes to Finneran of 18 and 17 yards.
That gave Atlanta's Michael Koenen a chance for a 58-yard field goal which he made to make the halftime score 14-13. The field goal was the second longest in Falcons history (longest was Morten Anderson's 59-yarder).
Brady opened the second half by immediately finding his tight ends. Two plays was all he needed to give the Patriots a 21-13 lead. The first was a 45-yard lob to Graham over the Atlanta defense to the Falcons 33. The second was almost an identical play, this time to Benjamin Watson for the score.
Lightning struck again for the Patriots later in the third quarter when Brady heaved a pass downfield that almost seemed to freeze the Falcons coverage. Bethel Johnson kept going, however, and ran underneath the 55-yard bomb for the score.
]()With his team up 28-13, Brady looked to be cruising as he marched his team over midfield late in the third quarter. Dillon had just run for 5 on first down to the Atlanta 42. On the next play, Brady looked to pass but had the ball deflected straight up by Ike Reese. Demorrio Williams came down with it for the game's first turnover.
Schaub followed up with a 28-yard pass to Crumpler to put the heat on the Patriots defense as the fourth quarter opened. Two plays later it was Crumpler again, catching a touchdown over the head of Guss Scott.
With the Atlanta fans back in the game, New England faced a critical third and 8 play from their own 40. Brady hit Watson for the first down but he was flagged for pass interference. That moved the ball back 10 yards. Offsides on Atlanta moved it up 5 and on third and 13, Brady hit Branch for what seemed to be the needed first down. Incredibly, another penalty, holding on Logan Mankins, made it a third and 25. It was too much to overcome this time as Pass's 13-yard run set up Josh Miller's punt from the 38.
New England forced Atlanta to punt but it wasn't easy. After moving to his own 46, Schaub put the ball down on third and 5 and ran. It looked like his dive was good for the first down and a 6-yard gain but the sideline official ruled he stepped out of bounds back at the 47, making the gain only a yard.
The Falcon's head coach Jim Mora, Jr., threw his challenge flag to question the ruling but it was a play that could not be challenged. After a furious Bill Belichick reminded the refs of that fact in no uncertain terms, the flag was put back in Mora's pocket and Atlanta punted.
Atlanta's defense stepped up and forced New England to punt after three plays and then Schaub went back to work. He hit Michael Jenkins for 18 yards and then handed the ball to Dunn four times for a total of 30 yards. From the New England 14, Schaub hit Dez White who got away from Asante Samuel, for the score.
That made the score 28-26. With around four minutes to play, Atlanta went for the two-point conversion. This time Schaub found Finneran in the left corner over Samuel to tie the game.
At this point, Dillon was nowhere to be found and it was unknown if he was injured.
New England began its bid to take the lead with two more penalties, numbers 10 and 11 on the day. That set up a first and 25 situation from the 21. Atlanta gave 5 yards back with a neutral zone infraction to make it first and 20 from the 26. It gave a lot more than that back on the next play. Brady threw downfield to Johnson and he was mugged by Rossum who was flagged.
Now New England had the ball first and 10 on the Atlanta 44.
At the two-minute warning, Brady hit Branch for 9 yards to make it first and 10 at the 29. With Dillon out, Pass then busted a 15-yard run up the middle that took around five Falcons to stop. Atlanta used up its remaining timeouts as Pass ran twice more to the 11. On third down, Brady kep as the clock ran down to 20 seconds. At that point, New England used its remaining timeout and brought on, who else, Adam Vinatieri.
The 29-yard attempt was true and the Patriots had the lead back at 31-28 and 17 seconds left to play.
The return drew a flag on Atlanta for holding. More importantly, another 11 seconds ticked off the clock leaving Atlanta only 6 seconds. Schaub passed down the middle and despite some lateral attempts, time expired with New England on top.
Notes: Inactives for the Patriots: Randall Gay; Chad Scott; Kevin Faulk; Tyrone Poole; Matt Chatham; Matt Light; Richard Seymour. Matt Cassel was the third QB. Inactives for the Falcons: Christian Morton; Cam Newton; Antoine Cash; Ben Claxton; Frank Omiyale; Darrell Shropshire; Jerome Pathon. Michael Vick was the third QB. ... With Richard Seymour at home, Jarvis Green got the start on the right side of the line as New England began the game in its 3-4 defense. ... Patrick Pass's touchdown run was the first of his career. ... Troy Brown's 2-yard catch in the second quarter moved him to second on the Patriots all-time receptions list.