Patriots vs. Falcons: Takeaways from New England's 30-23 Win over Atlanta
After a back-and-forth first half, the Patriots dominated on both sides of the ball in the late third quarter, going up 30-13 with six minutes and 18 seconds left. But a mishandled onside kick by Zach Sudfeld, and a fumbled 4th-and-inches snap exchange later, and the Falcons were suddenly back in it.
With possibility two significant injuries, this win might come at a cost. Both Vince Wilfork and Aaron Dobson left the game and did not return.
Otherwise, it was a well-balanced win for the Pats, who might've proved their defense is legit.
Here's what else we learned in the Patriots' fourth win of the season.
Gostkowski for Pro Bowl
Some might've questioned Stephen Gostkowski's job security coming into this season, but he's off to one of the best starts of his career in 2013.
Gostkowski was 3-of-3 against the Falcons and has missed just one field goal all season. The kicks against the Falcons were meaningful ones in a tight game, so it was good to see Gostkowski overcome a little added pressure.
Of course, kicking in a dome always helps a little bit, right? We'll see how he kicks in Denver in January...
Everyone Is Chipping In
This felt like an old-school Patriots win because after the touchdown you had to ask yourself, "Who's that guy?"
Matthew Mulligan wasn't the only Patriots player thrust into action. Wilfork's injury put Joe Vellano on center stage and also Chris Jones (a sixth-round draft pick of the Houston Texans who was claimed on waivers on Sept. 11) into action.
The Patriots are getting major contributions from unknown rookies, and it's been a strong point for the team at this early juncture.
Three-Man Running Back Rotation Working
It was generally expected that the Pats would use Stevan Ridley as their primary running back this season, but the Pats used a balanced attack against the Falcons, featuring Ridley (11 carries), LeGarrette Blount (nine carries) and Brandon Bolden (six carries).
Ridley and Bolden are the early down guys, and in place of a true passing-down back, the Pats have been using Blount as the closer. Blount's 47-yard touchdown run was just the kind of explosive play the Pats lacked in their first three games.
With 132 yards on the ground, the three-man backfield got the job done, sparking the Pats' passing game as well.
Problems Covering Tight Ends?
A defense can take any weapon away from an offense, but it comes with a price. While the Pats were able to take away the deep passing game, they were eaten up underneath.
Tony Gonzalez had a big day (12 REC, 149 YDS, 2 TD) and caught almost everything that came his direction. Does that signal the Pats' problems covering tight ends is still an issue? Or is it just an unfortunate by-product of a defensive game plan that did win the game?
Rookie Jamie Collins got some time in coverage against Gonzalez, but it was clear the rookie wasn't quite ready to handle the veteran, who was on his game.
With Jermaine Gresham and Jimmy Graham coming up the next two weeks, this will be an area to monitor.
Kenbrell Thompkins Is Legit
In the past two games, Kenbrell Thompkins has nine catches for 168 yards and three touchdowns, and it looks like he might be the X-receiver they've needed.
While it's still a work in progress, Brady continues to develop confidence in the undrafted receiver. Thompkins still looks sporadic at times, either failing to cut his route off where Brady wanted him to or not catching the ball with his hands.
With Dobson possibly hurt, the focus will be on Thompkins even more. He'll need to continue to refine his game, but so far, he looks loaded with potential, with a little swagger to boot.
The Bend-Don't-Break Is Alive and Well
Although Matt Ryan threw for 421 yards, a lot of them came when the Pats went into their prevent defense. There's no question, this one had the feel of a loss Patriots fans are used to—the last-minute heartbreaker that you thought you had won.
The Pats' overall pressure was just okay, but the coverage was often perfect. Even when catches were made, the ball-carrier was almost always immediately tackled. The Patriots defense was impressive.
Was there a bit of a letdown at the end? Absolutely, and it's the perfect teaching tool for Bill Belichick. At this point in the season, it's almost better that the Falcons almost came back, as a learning moment for the entire team.
But the defense came up with a fourth-down stop to seal the win, once again stepping up this season. The Pats executed the game plan, and they won the game. That will build confidence and trust in their coaches.
Some might've thought the Pats defense was overrated headed into this one, but it's hard to argue with the result.
Aqib Talib Is Playing Like a Shutdown Corner
The result early on was Matt Ryan completing a lot of underneath passes to Gonzalez and the running backs. Gonzalez put up 12 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns, but the Falcons were stopped in the red zone on five of six times.
The last of those was Talib sealing the victory.
There might've been some question about Talib's direct impact last season, but so far this season he is playing as well as any cornerback in New England since Ty Law.
Talib leads the NFL in interceptions (4) and is going to make a lot of money this offseason if he can keep it up.
Wilfork Injury Could Be a Big Blow
Perhaps the biggest news of the night was that of Wilfork being carted off with what was later learned to be an ankle injury.
Wilfork is the primary chess piece in Bill Belichick's defense, and losing him for any period of time will be difficult to overcome. The Patriots lacked depth at the defensive tackle position entering the season, while first-year player Armond Armstead remains on the PUP list.
Tommy Kelly becomes the focal player now upfront for the Pats, as he'll need to play Wilfork's snaps in sub-packages as well. Vellano has been surprisingly solid and came up with a big sack against the Falcons, but is he ready to be the No. 2 tackle? Barely.
If Wilfork is gone for a significant period of time, the Pats will need to find some veteran help immediately.
The Patriots Are 4-0
At the end of Sunday, you are what your record says you are, and the Patriots are 4-0.
Their offense continues to get timely contributions and show improvement. They're building a reputation of being a balanced offense, and those are the hardest to defend.
On defense, it looks like the Patriots defense is back. Like the offense, it hasn't always been perfect, but it's shown character in big moments and the ability to make big plays in those moments. Six fourth-down stops in two games says it all.