ATLANTA -- Atlanta presented the Patriots defense with an opportunity Sunday night.
You want to be taken seriously? Prove you can do more than beat up on rookie quarterbacks. Take on some top-tier receivers and a veteran signal caller who completes more than 46-percent of his passes. Enter the Georgia Dome, sit down Matt Ryan, shut up Julio Jones, and then you'll have our attention.
Yes, Ryan completed 34 of 54 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns. But much of Atlanta's yardage went to waste as the Falcons converted just one of six red zone opportunities.
New England prevailed, 30-23.
"We knew how high-octane of a passing game they had, and the talent level of the players they have on the offensive side of the ball," Patriots safety Steve Gregory noted.
"The goal was to come in here and win the game. If it takes 60 minutes like it did today, that's what we're going to do. And most games in the NFL are going to take that time. The guys did a great job of buckling down and finding a way to win."
A way that did not, could not, include Vince Wilfork. New England's starting nose tackle tore his Achilles tendon on the 10th play of the game. He never returned.
And so the weakened Patriots 'D' braced for its toughest test yet.
Overpowering Atlanta meant wrestling an entirely different animal than those set loose by Buffalo, the Jets, and Tampa Bay. The Falcons offense, led by Ryan, came into the game ranked No. 9 in the NFL. Receiver Julio Jones was the NFL leader in both catches (27) and yards (373).
New England kept him quiet for three quarters. Jones caught just three passes for 22 yards in 45 minutes of work, largely because of the coverage by cornerback Aqib Talib. Ryan had other trusted options, like veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, they just couldn't score enough points.
With six minutes left to play, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 49-yard field goal to put the road team up by 17. The road team was poised for the win.
But Atlanta scratched and clawed its way back to a one possession game in half the remaining time.
Just under the two minute warning, Ryan cranked open a last-ditch drive with a 49-yard bomb to Jones. The Falcons sprinted downfield to pick up the series on New England's 13-yard line. The Patriots, reeling from the blow, ran to catch up.
The defense felt the game settle squarely onto its shoulders.
Said Tommy Kelly: "Before we went out, we just said, We ain't gon' blow it. We made sure everybody was in the right position, where they needed to be."
Atlanta had a shot to tie the game with 41 seconds left in regulation. Ryan took the snap on fourth-and-2, looked into the end zone, and targeted sure-handed receiver Roddy White.
Talib was on point, as he'd been for most of the night. He knocked the pass away to keep the Patriots perfect at 4-0.
"When you get up a lead on them, they're in a mode where they're spreading it out, airing it out, and it becomes a 7-on-7 type of football game," Gregory explained.
"Talib had a heck of a game. The defensive front had a great game. Everybody just came in together, and rallied around each other, and came up with a way to win."
Jones finished with more than 100 yards. Gonzalez, at age 37, set a career-high for receiving yards with 149 off 12 catches. But New England got the win and the defense got to beat its chest in pride.
"That not only shows confidence in ourselves, but confidence in each other -- trust," cornerback Kyle Arrington said. "There's been a few games where it's been on the defense's back, and we like those challenges. It builds us as a team, it builds character."
It may even inspire begrudging respect throughout the league. It's hard to say New England's not earning it now.
"We've got the whole league watching us, whole world watching," Talib said. "Everybody picked us to lose. It don't get no better than that."