PATS 30, FALCONS 23
-- Patriots hang on for win over Falcons
-- Wilfork tears Achilles, probably out for season
-- Talib comes out on top again
-- Key play: Blount's long TD run
-- Paoletti's game superlatives
TOM E. CURRAN
-- The Patriots are still Brady's bunch
-- WATCH: 'Remarkable performance' by defense
The last time the Patriots were 3-0 at the start of a season -- prior to this year, of course -- was 2007. Maybe you heard that mentioned once or twice or 27 times over the last week.
The 2013 Pats, according to conventional wisdom, had little in common to their '07 predecessors except for that record. Particularly on offense, where the in-his-prime Tom Brady and Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth and company were in scoring position no matter where they were on the field.
Well, little by little, this year's version is making that comparison seem less and less ridiculous. Yes, even on offense.
The contemporary Patriots posted what the college folk would call their first quality win of the year Sunday night, a 30-23 takedown of the Falcons -- a finalist in last year's NFC championship game -- at the Georgia Dome. It didn't come easy; the Falcons fought back from a 30-13 deficit in the final six minutes and had a first down on the New England 13 with 59 seconds to play, But the Pats' don't-break defense, which forced field goals (or nothing) instead of touchdowns in five Atlanta trips to the red zone, kept the Falcons from scoring the tying touchdown after they'd reached the New England 13 in the final minute.
"Everybody picked us to lose," said cornerback Aqib Talib, who came up with an interception and was crucial in hold the Falcons TD-less in all those trips inside the New England 20. "It feels good."
Just as interesting, perhaps, was the heretofore Earth-bound Patriot offense, which came through with explosiveness that would have done the 2007 crew proud.
The game was close -- New England 13, Atlanta 10 -- when the Pats came to the line of scrimmage at their own 12-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter, facing a third-and-19. Brady, who had already hit Kenbrell Thompkins with the longest pass play of the season (49 yards), found Thompkins again for a 26-yard gain to the 38 . . . and 15 more yards were tacked on for a hit to the head by William Moore.
On the next play, LeGarrette Blount -- escorted by Dan Connolly -- broke to the outside, turned the corner and outraced the Falcon secondary to the end zone, a 47-yard run that made the score 20-10.
Two plays. Eighty-eight yards. Shades of Moss and Welker and Stallworth and friends.
The Falcons got a 45-yard field goal from Matt Bryant to cut the lead to 20-13, but the Pats went right back at it on their next possession. Brady hit Julian Edelman for a a middling gain of 16 yards and a longer one of 44, setting up an 18-yard Brady-to-Thompkins touchdown pass that seemingly put the game away at 27-13. A 49-yard Gostkowski field goal later in the quarter -- set up by yet another long gainer (a 24-yard pass from Brady to Josh Boyce) -- made it 30-13 with less than 6 1/2 minutes remaining.
But then the Falcons showed their pedigree and made a game of it. First Matt Ryan drove Atlanta 80 yards in less than two minutes, capping the seven-play drive with an 11-yard TD pass to Tony Gonzalez. Then the Falcons recovered the ensuing onside kick, and Ryan got them to the New England 7 in just six plays. The Pats' defense, however, stiffened yet again -- helped, it must be noted, by Levine Tollolo letting a catchable ball go through his hands in the end one on third down -- and the Falcons had to settle for a 25-yard field goal from Bryant with three minutes to go.
Atlanta tried another onside kick, but Michael Hoomanawanui was able to recover it at the Falcons 46. However, the second Brady fumble of a snap on a fourth-down play this year gave Atlanta the ball on its own 38, and Ryan hit Jones with a 49-yard pass that put the Falcons on the Pats' 13.
But that was as far as they got. The defense forced four consecutive Ryan incompletions, and New England had its fourth win of the year.
"We're just grinding it out," said Brady. "We can certainly play better; we've got a lot to learn from."
Thompkins enjoyed his finest day as a pro, gaining 127 yards on 6 catches. Edelman pulled down seven passes for 118 yards. And Brady's numbers were more Brady-like than they've been all year: 20-of-31, 316 yards, 2 touchdowns. He's now thrown TD passes in 52 consecutive games, two short of Drew Brees' NFL record of 54 straight.
The Pats were able to take away Jones and White by leaving Gonzalez, a future Hall of Fame tight end, to be covered primarily by linebackers, and that matchup was the main reason the game was tied, 10-10, at halftime. He caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan with 46 seconds left in the half -- one of 12 catches for Gonzalez on the night, worth 149 yards -- that wiped out a 10-3 New England lead.
"We didn't do a very good job with the tight end in the first half," said Bill Belichick.
Notably, the Pats abandoned that strategy with the game on the line and had Gonzalez double- and triple-teamed at the end. Unable to hit Gonzalez and with his wideouts not able to get free, Ryan (34-of-54, 421 yards, 2 TDs, 1 interception) couldn't complete the comeback.
"It was great to see the defense [come through]," said guard Logan Mankins. "Man, they came up big for us."
And now the Pats are 4-0 for the first time since 2007. This week, the comparison might not seem quite so absurd.