ATLANTA - Beating the Atlanta Falcons, 24-10, yesterday does not warrant a parade. But when one considers where the Patriots came from, and where they are now, making it to .500 at the halfway point of the season is a major accomplishment.
They achieved a 4-4 mark by winning two of three consecutive road games, no small feat in a league in which most teams don’t play well away from home.
The players were happy and positive, sensing a legitimate chance at the playoffs.
With significant contributors Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, and Bryan Cox sidelined by injuries, the Patriots yesterday did what they’ve wanted since the season started: play 60 intense minutes. It is a simple concept, but a difficult task.
Certainly New England possessed a bit of luck on Troy Brown’s 44-yard catch that bounced off a Falcons defender and went for a touchdown in the third quarter that sealed the win. But it was the never-waning intensity that was most responsible for the result.
The Patriots sacked Chris Chandler and Michael Vick nine times, and allowed only 104 net passing yards. The Patriots’ Tom Brady was 21 of 31 for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Brady was rebounding from a four-interception fourth-quarter performance last week against Denver.
“If you say you’re going to blitz, you’ve got to get there,” said Patriots defensive end Bobby Hamilton.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and coach Bill Belichick know that Chandler is similar in style to Bledsoe. So, as they used to do in defensing Bledsoe while coaching on other teams, they moved Willie McGinest around on the defensive line, and shot safeties and linebackers up the middle and from the edges. The Falcons never knew what hit them.
“I don’t know how teams defend against us anyway,” said Lawyer Milloy. “We have a different game plan every week. You can’t watch film on us and figure out what we’re going to do against you the following week.”
And Charlie Weis’s game plan was nothing short of brilliant. The offensive coordinator received accolades for his trick-play based attack against the Colts two weeks ago, but yesterday he had his work cut out for him. For one, he knew the Falcons would take away his wide receivers, Troy Brown and David Patten. Without Glenn (hamstring), Weis had to develop another look. So Brady threw to his backs (Antowain Smith, Kevin Faulk, and Marc Edwards, who accounted for 10 catches and two touchdowns).
“It’s nice when a team comes together like this,” said Brady. “There have been hard times before that I’ve had. You learn how to deal with them and just move forward.”
The Patriots moved well on their second possession, but Smith, who gained 117 yards on 23 carries, fumbled at the Falcons’ 14 with 8:34 remaining in the first quarter, Chris Hudson popped him, and Patrick Kerney recovered.
Later in the first, a 16-yard pass from Chandler to Tony Martin seemed to loosen up the defense. Then Maurice Smith took a pitch left and went 58 yards to the New England 14. On the play, safety Tebucky Jones was blitzing, and shot up the left side as Smith was already past him. Chandler then connected with a diving Shawn Jefferson for a 19-yard score, on which the Patriots committed two penalties. They were forgiven by the Falcons, who took a 7-0 lead with 2:35 left in the quarter.
Instead of trying to get it all back at once, Brady patiently directed a 16-play, 75-yard drive to tie it with six minutes gone in the second quarter. There were medium-range passes of 12 yards to Curtis Jackson, 10 yards to Faulk, and 17 yards to an open Patten. And on third down from the 4, the Patriots lined up with a five-receiver, empty backfield set. Brady lofted a fade to the left corner to Faulk to make it 7-7.
“I’ll take a matchup of a linebacker [Keith Brooking] on Kevin any day,” said Brady.
By this time the pressure by the Patriots was affecting Chandler, who normally is very efficient. He tried to thread the needle to Jefferson over the middle on the next series and Otis Smith, the oldest starting cornerback in the league, picked off the pass at the Falcons’ 43. He returned it 17 yards to the 26.
Then came the only lapse; the Patriots were called for four penalties on their drive, and they wound up with a 48-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, giving them a 10-7 lead.
Richard Seymour, the Patriots’ top draft pick, showed he was fully recovered from three weeks of hamstring woes when he sacked Chandler for a 6-yard loss on the next series. That was a key play as the Falcons were forced to punt.
Taking over with 2:56 remaining in the half and the ball at their 11, the Patriots marched 89 yards on 10 plays to take a 17-7 halftime lead. One big play was a 25-yard pass to Brown on second down to the Patriots’ 48. Then there was Brady’s 15-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Edwards, who stumbled but kept his footing into the end zone.
The Patriots had been outscored, 69-16, in the third quarter entering the game. But yesterday was different.
With 44 seconds left in the third, Brady dropped back at the Falcons’ 44 and looked to hit Patten at about the 15, but the ball never got there. It tipped off cornerback Ashley Ambrose’s right knee and bounced to Brown, who had a clear path to the end zone.
“I saw [the ball] go over my head, and then I see it right in my hands,” said Brown. “It was a big play. During the course of the season, you need your share of those.”
Trailing, 24-7, the majority of the 44,229 fans were booing Chandler and chanting for Vick. Chandler was crunched one last time by Anthony Pleasant late in the third, and the crowd would get its wish.
Vick led the Falcons to a field goal, and he excited the crowd with a long 35-yard scramble.
But the Patriots finished strong on this day.
A strong .500.