For most of Sunday night's convincing win over the visiting Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium the Patriots were in control. Despite the final outcome, however, there were a couple of important junctures where the New England defense was forced to make a play in order to maintain control, and that was never more evident than during a key goal line stand early in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta was able to move the ball reasonably well between the 20s most of the night, but when it came time to score the Falcons simply had no answers for the reinvigorated Patriots defense. That was evident by the fact that Atlanta managed just seven points despite four trips inside New England's red zone, and it was on one of those trips where New England's defense shined brightest.
The Patriots led 20-0 late in the third quarter when the Falcons took over at their own 24. If there was to be a comeback, it certainly would need to start at that point and Matt Ryan got things going with some help from Devonta Freeman and the running game. Freeman carried three times for 27 yards and caught a pass for another 9 yards on the first four plays of the drive.
Back-to-back completions for Julio Jones resulted in gains of 16 and 14 yards and soon the Falcons had first-and-goal from the Patriots 10. A 9-yard pass to Mohamad Sanu set up third-and-goal from the 1, and that's when the defense really went to work.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, Ryan tried to hit Jones in the end zone but Malcolm Butler came underneath and batted the ball away, setting up fourth-and-goal. A Falcons touchdown with virtually the entire fourth quarter still to play would have given Atlanta some life, but it wasn't to be.
Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel lined up on the left side and broke toward the middle in motion before the snap. Ryan took the snap under center and turned to hand it to the speedy wideout, who tried a jet sweep around the right side for the end zone.
He was met with some resistance, however, as Trey Flowers forced him to give some ground before Kyle Van Noy did the rest, dropping Gabriel for a 5-yard loss to end the threat.
Preserving the shutout definitely qualified as the satisfying moment of the game, and more importantly it allowed the Patriots to cruise through the final quarter with their healthy lead still intact.