No smoke and mirrors were needed this time. Nope, New England went out and left no doubt as to which was the better team in a 24-10 win over Atlanta.
The Patriots have won in several fashions this season. They have used overtime drama, gadget offenses and strong individual performances. None of that was needed this time. This outing was just a good, old-fashioned butt-whooping. New England used a total team effort, highlighted by a completely dominant defensive performance, to finish an impressive road trip with two victories in three games to even its record at 4-4 at the midway point of the season
Using extremely effective blitzing, the Patriots were in the backfield all day long. Quarterbacks Chris Chandler and Michael Vick were sacked a combined nine times, just one short of the Patriots team record. There were several other close calls, especially by cornerback Otis Smith, who forced three hurried passes to fall incomplete. As impressive as the sack total was, the fact that eight different players got in on the act shows the effectiveness of a good team defense.
"A lot of the defensive players got together a couple times this week and said, 'The offense has been carrying us for a couple weeks; we have to start doing our job,'" Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "They said, 'Keep calling aggressive defenses, and we'll come through.'
"Sometimes when things aren't going so well for a couple weeks, you regroup and it causes you to bond. I think that is what happened."
The defense bonded often with the Atlanta quarterbacks, and the heavy pressure resulted in a woeful passing day for the Falcons. Chandler and Vick combined for 10-of-29 passing for 151 yards, 50 of which came on one play.
When the Patriots made Richard Seymour the No. 6 pick in the draft, they envisioned he and Willie McGinest wreaking havoc in the backfield. Because of injuries, they hadn't played together much until Sunday. They were certainly not the only linemen playing well, but they combined for six tackles, three sacks and several other pressures.
"The guys around me were playing really well, and that made things easier for me," said McGinest, who posted his second straight multi-sack performance. "There were a lot of guys making plays, and that forced their protection to spread thin."
New England was just as strong against the run. If ever there was a misleading statistic, it was Atlanta rushing 19 times for 140 yards. Maurice Smith broke one run for 58 yards, and Vick had two scrambles for 50 yards late in the game, meaning Atlanta had 32 yards on its remaining 16 attempts.
"We wanted to create one-on-ones along the line of scrimmage," Seymour said. "When you get one-on-ones, you have to win the individual battles, and we did that today."
After struggling with third downs for much of the season, the Patriots held the Falcons to just 3-of-14 conversions. Atlanta got 89 yards on its first-quarter touchdown drive, but on its other nine possessions through the first three quarters netted just 39 yards, 19 of which came on the second-to-last play of the half.
"Today we were able to put everything together," said cornerback Ty Law, who had three tackles and a big pass defensed in the fourth quarter on an attempt from Vick to former Patriot Shawn Jefferson in the end zone. "Lately when the offense has been clicking, the defense has been lacking a little bit. We have to continue to put it together on both sides and establish consistency. When everyone is on the same page and playing with intensity, we feel like we can play with any team in the league."
The New England Patriots take on the Atlanta Falcons at The Georgia Dome on Sunday, November 4, 2001.
Part of what made the victory so special was the way the units picked each other up. When the offense struggled, the defense held down the fort. The few times the defense got hit by big plays, it was the offense providing the pick-me-up.
After the defense opened with a pair of three-and-out stops, Smith's 58-yard run led to Atlanta's only touchdown, a 19-yard pass to Jefferson in the first quarter. New England refused to get down. The offense responded immediately with a 16-play touchdown drive that ate 8:35 off the clock. The drive was capped by a 4-yard fade pass to running back Kevin Faulk. A fade route to a shorter receiver isn't exactly a common option, but Faulk felt it was a great opportunity.
"In certain situations, you can get a linebacker on a running back," Faulk said. "The coaches thought we could force their hand, and any time we can get that kind of matchup outside, we are going to go after it."
Even with the defense allowing only three first downs and 35 passing yards with 2:56 to go in the half, the Patriots led just 10-7 with the ball at their own 11-yard line. Tom Brady, who responded very well to the adversity he faced in Denver, showed tremendous poise. He marched the team the length of the field for a touchdown just 15 seconds before the half, giving the team a huge momentum swing.
"That was one of the best drives we had all year," said Belichick, who watched Brady complete 7-of-9 for 82 yards while managing the clock perfectly. "When Tom hit [Marc] Edwards down the sideline on the touchdown, it was just a terrific call by [offensive coordinator] Charlie [Weis]. That was a big, big drive for us."
After the break, the defense came up with a huge stop after an Edwards' fumble gave Atlanta the ball at midfield. On first down Brandon Mitchell stopped Smith for a 2-yard loss, and then Chandler was sacked by Anthony Pleasant. On third-and-17, Lawyer Milloy stopped Tony Martin after a 14-yard pass to force a punt.
"Momentum-wise, we went into halftime excited with the late touchdown," said Brady, who finished 21-of-31 for 250 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. "The defense was playing very well, and they stepped it up even more in the second half when the offense stalled a bit. Chalk this victory up to the defense."
In the second half, all the bounces seemed to go New England's way. Even before the fumble by Edwards, Troy Brown fumbled the ball on a backwards lateral off the right end. He recovered the ball and turned the play into a 5-yard gain.
Later in the third quarter Brown had an even luckier bounce. Brady was trying to hit David Patten deep down the left side, but his pass was knocked away by cornerback Ashley Ambrose. The ball bounced back several yards to Brown, who caught it and broke outside and ran it in for a 44-yard touchdown, his fourth of the season.
It was a lucky play, but the win was no fluke. The Patriots finished the three-game road trip feeling they should have won all three games. Now they return home for a three-game stretch, starting with Buffalo. The Bills are struggling at 1-6, but Belichick expects another AFC East dogfight. Regardless, there is a chance Belichick can achieve a winning mark for the first time with the Patriots next Sunday.
It is the midway point of the season, and New England already is within one victory of last season's total. With five home games remaining, the team has managed to raise the bar with a string of impressive performances. If the team continues running on all cylinders as it did against Atlanta, there will be plenty of meaningful games to play come December.
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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