- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATLANTA -- Midway through the fourth quarter, we were ready to write it in all capital letters for the New England Patriots: BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.
Then came a near collapse, so let’s just call it the best win of the season.
They did it in the Georgia Dome, one of the toughest places for visitors to emerge victorious. They did it against an Atlanta Falcons team that since 2008 has only lost back-to-back games three times. And they did it after taking control of the game with a commanding 17-point lead with 6:18 remaining. But then they almost gave it away after about half of the sellout crowd had headed to the exits.
Talk about creating your own adversity, then overcoming it. That’s what Sunday night’s 30-23 victory represented for the Patriots: a 60-minute roller coaster of sudden swings with a happy ending.
For those curious how players reacted, it was mostly a happy Patriots' locker room afterward, even though it seemed like quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t in the smiling mood. Maybe he was just exhausted. Or maybe he was peeved that a fumbled snap on fourth down with 1:54 remaining, when the Patriots needed to advance just a few inches to seal the win, nearly cost the team a victory.
Instead, it took cornerback Aqib Talib's fourth-down pass breakup, in the end zone, to finally extinguish the threat.
“We slugged it out,” Brady said early Monday morning. “We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play. They have a very good team. It’s nice to win and be 4-0.”
“I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They made a good example of what it takes to win in the league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football. We have to do a better job of finishing out the game. Obviously we could have played a little better in the end, but it’s good to be 4-0 and get out of here with a win.”
As one player was quick to remind a reporter, few pundits predicted the Patriots would be in this position, which was a reminder that media buzz does resonate inside the locker room walls at times -- stuff like the Patriots defense needing to prove it can shut down a top-level quarterback, or the inconsistent offense being able to hold up its end of the bargain.
There will be fewer questions about the defense after this one, and anyone who might have doubted Talib’s value to the unit has to be having second thoughts. He’s been a big-time difference maker, the first real shutdown man corner the team has had since Ty Law (1995-2004), and he showed it again Sunday night.
But that doesn’t mean there are not concerns. Starting defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left the Georgia Dome with a protective boot on his right foot after being carted to the locker room in the first quarter. Belichick was speaking with Wilfork’s wife, Bianca, outside the team’s locker room after the game -- a conversation that both obviously hoped they wouldn’t be having.
The Boston Globe reports Wilfork has a torn right Achilles tendon and likely is done for the season.
Meanwhile, promoted cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who started in the base defense over Kyle Arrington for the first time this season, hobbled off late and didn’t finish. And rookie receiver Aaron Dobson left in the third quarter with a neck injury and never returned.
So the Patriots left Atlanta a battered team. But it’s safe to say they aren’t as bruised and beaten as the Falcons, who were steamrolled by a power running game that had shades of 2004, when Corey Dillon was tearing up opposing defenses. The Patriots, who owned a decisive size advantage over the Falcons, wanted to play old-fashioned big-boy football.
Wide-smiling 250-pound running back LeGarrette Blount, who romped for a 47-yard touchdown run at the start of the fourth quarter, relayed to the media that that was the crux of Belichick’s message all week -- physical play.
That’s why Brady had only nine pass attempts in the first half, the Patriots preferring to keep it on the ground (they only had three possessions) before their passing game erupted in the second half. Receivers Julian Edelman (7 catches, 118 yards) and Kenbrell Thompkins (6 catches, 127 yards and a TD) were immense.
“I’m just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called,” said the unassuming Thompkins, whose diving 18-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter was similar to a play he failed to make in Week 2 against the New York Jets.
The play, in a sense, epitomizes the growth that players such as Thompkins and the Patriots have shown in a short time. And if the past is any indication, they should only get better.
When there was 6:31 remaining, and it was 30-13, it didn’t seem like a stretch to say the Patriots were putting together the type of performance that brought back memories of their Super Bowl championship past.
It had all the makings of the BEST WIN OF THE SEASON.
The ending, and near collapse, almost changed everything.