All week, the questions surrounding the Patriots were about third quarter troubles, an inconsistent defense and whether or not young quarterback Tom Brady could rebound from his four interception second half suffered in last week's loss to Denver. Throw in some inconsistent road performances and all signs pointed toward a Falcon win.
But in the Patriots most dominant defensive effort in recent memory, they rolled over the Atlanta Falcons, 24-10, at the Georgia Dome to get back to .500 at 4-4. Brady answered his naysayers with a strong three-touchdown performance in which he completed 21-of-31 for 250 yards without a turnover.
"It was a good win for us over an NFC team," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "We didn't beat [an NFC team] last year. Atlanta's a good football team and we had some things go our way today. I thought defensively, we had a lot of guys step up and play good team defense. Offensively, we had a couple of big drives."
As well as Brady executed the high-percentage passes in the game plan to help the Patriots keep the chains moving and keep Atlanta's offense off the field, it was a masterful, attacking defense that suffocated Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Maurice Smith.
The Patriots nearly equaled their franchise sack record (10) with nine quarterback takedowns as a combination of timely blitzes and superb coverage against Atlanta's speedy wideouts paved the way for an impressive road victory.
The defense punished Chandler into an ugly performance as the veteran quarterback completed just 8-of-20 for 96 yards before leaving with an injury. His replacement, rookie Michael Vick, made things interesting with two impressive scrambles for 50 yards, but he too took a beating in the final quarter and finished 2-of-9 for 56 yards, 50 of which came on a 6-yard throw over the middle to Brian Finneran that the receiver turned into a 50-yard gain. Overall, the Falcons were just 3-of-14 (21 percent) on the all-important third down, which may have been the Patriots most impressive statistic in the game.
In many prior instances, the Patriots defense has not responded to an early lead posted by the offense, but on Sunday in Atlanta, it was a different game as that defense put forth a tremendous effort and, it should be noted, shut out Atlanta in the third quarter where New England had been outscored 69-16 coming in. On Sunday, New England held a 7-0 edge in the dreaded third.
It did it by playing emotional, aggressive football with sacks going to Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest (2), Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, Bobby Hamilton, Tebucky Jones and Richard Seymour.
However, the defense didn't do it alone. The Patriots offense put together masterful drives to tie the game, 7-7, immediately after the Falcons had jumped on top and then did it then again just before the half when it drove 89 yards for a touchdown to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room.
The Patriots final touchdown came on a play reminiscent of the famous immaculate reception by former Pittsburgh great Franco Harris, but wide receiver Troy Brown was the fortunate recipient of what ended as a 44-yard touchdown pass that put the game away at 24-7.
On the play, Brady threw down the middle to David Patten at about the Falcons 20-yard line, but the pass was into coverage and cornerback Ashley Ambrose broke it up by deflecting a ball he may have been able to intercept. The deflected pass bounced backwards where Brown caught it at about the 23-yard line and ran to the end zone for a critical touchdown that made the score 24-7.
Antowain Smith had his best day as a Patriot, running downhill throughout on his way to his first 100-yard game in New England. The former Buffalo Bill finished with 23 carries for 117 yards. The Patriots did a credible job blocking Falcons star middle linebacker Keith Brooking as well. Brooking, the Falcons leading tackler, had 11 stops, but only three in the second half.
From there, the defense took over keeping Chandler, Vick and speedy wideouts Tony Martin, Terance Mathis and Shawn Jefferson in check. The three wideouts finished with five receptions for 56 yards and one touchdown.
Also, the defense was able to account for the offense's two major miscues – one an Antowain Smith fumble at the Falcons 14 and the second a Marc Edwards fumble at midfield. In both instances, the Patriots defense failed to allow a Falcon first down and held Atlanta to 6 yards combined on the two series.
Early on, it looked like the big-play bug Belichick warned about might continue to bite the Patriots defense. The Falcons got on the board first thanks to one such play. After losing 5 yards combined on its first two possessions, the Falcons made up for it on their third series when Smith broke through an 8-man front on the left and ran away from the Patriots defense for 58 yards before Ty Law caught him at the 14-yard line.
Atlanta then overcame a holding penalty when Chandler stepped up in the pocket to avoid pressure and hit Jefferson for a 22-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Falcons lead.
The Patriots responded on their next possession, driving 75 yards in 16 plays with Brady an effective 6-for-6 on the 8:35 march. A pair of clutch plays highlighted the series. Brady, following a sack on a flea flicker, responded with a 17-yard completion to Patten on second-and-14 to put the ball on the Falcons 21. One play later, Smith followed a punishing Edwards block to the left for a 19-yard pickup to the 2. After two runs for minus-2 yards, Brady threw a fade to the left in the end zone where Kevin Faulk went over Brooking for the game-tying score.
New England begrudgingly took the lead on it next possession after Otis Smith intercepted his second pass of the year and returned it 17 yards to the Atlanta 26. The Patriots then went into brain lock, committing four penalties for minus-30 yards before Adam Vinatieri bailed out his offensive teammates by booming a 47-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
The defense finished the half on a strong note, getting the ball back to its offense in three plays with 2:56 to go in the second quarter, and the offense took advantage. Brady looked like a veteran starting at his own 11 and guiding the 2:00 offense. He connected on passes of 25 yards to Brown and 15 yards to Patten on his way to moving New England to the Atlanta 25.
Then on third-and-eight from the 23, he hit Faulk over the middle who scampered an inch past the first down marker to the 15 with 21 seconds left in what turned out to be a huge play. That's because one play later, Brady found a wide open Edwards at the 6 and the big fullback walked in to the end zone to complete the scoring drive and give New England a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Falcons never threatened as they fell to 3-4 on the season and watched the Patriots get back to 4-4 with the Bills coming to Foxboro Stadium next week.