ATLANTA - Many pieces of what should make the Patriots one of the best teams in the NFL were invisible a week ago.
In fact, throughout this season, the Patriots have disappeared and been bad as often as they have appeared to be good, hence a 2-2 record entering yesterday’s contest at Atlanta.
But lest anyone forget that certain Patriots’ magic, we offer yesterday’s 31-28 victory over the Falcons before 71,079 at the Georgia Dome.
You could almost see Tom Brady mouth the word “abracadabra” before leaving the game to the almost automatic Adam Vinatieri, whose 29-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining provided the winning points.
When the smoke cleared, New England had avoided its first two-game losing streak in three years and righted a ship that was way off course in a 24-point home loss to San Diego seven days earlier.
“This is a team that believes a lot in itself, you know, even if other people don’t,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “You have to give all the credit in the world to the players, to come down here and beat a good football team.
“Every game is important, every win is important. I don’t rank them, but it’s certainly a good one.”
It matters not that the Falcons were without their wonderboy quarterback Michael Vick, who did not play because of a knee injury. Many Patriots said they felt the pundits were too quick to pronounce their season to be at a turning point.
This was not a statement game, they claim, but they made a statement.
“We’ve had doubters for a long time,” Brady said. “Like I said earlier in the week, you can keep betting against us, that’s fine by us. We’re just going to keep trying to go out and do the same things every week play hard, play tough, and play physical.
“Today was a better example of that. I think it showed some of the resiliency of the team. The guys really fought hard for this one, and we needed to fight hard because we were playing one of the best teams in the league.”
Brady was superb, completing 22 of 27 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns, and as he so often does, he found the late-game magic.
Asante Samuel said he asked Brady to pull the victory bunny out of a hat once more, so he would not be viewed as the goat.
The cornerback, burned on a few occasions, was victimized on consecutive plays late in the fourth quarter as the never-say-die Falcons (3-2) bounced back from their second double-digit deficit to tie the score, 28-28.
Somehow Samuel became baffled by Dez White on a simple in-out corner route for a touchdown with just under four minutes left. Before he could get his bearings, Samuel found himself on the other side of the field and on the short end literally of a jump ball with Brian Finneran on the 2-point conversion.
The 6-foot-5-inch Finneran had little difficulty hauling in Matt Schaub’s throw over the 5-10 Samuel.
“I’m Tom’s biggest fan after that happened,” Samuel said. “I’m like, `Tom, go make it happen.’ “
Several Patriots who were being questioned of late tailback Corey Dillon, tight ends Daniel Graham and Benjamin Watson, and receivers Deion Branch and Bethel Johnson made it happen, as the Patriots posted season highs in points and yards.
Dillon, who had more yards in the first half than he had in any of the Patriots’ first four games, finished with 106 yards on 23 carries, and the Patriots had more than twice as many yards on the ground (141) as their season average (66).
Graham, who has spent almost as much time blocking as the Patriots’ offensive linemen, took advantage of his expanded role to pull down five catches for a career-high 119 yards, which included a highlight reel 45-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Watson scored the first touchdown of his career, a 33-yarder, as the tight end duo was one reception shy of matching its total for the first four games.
Johnson, who missed much of the summer with a foot injury and has played only a handful of plays this season, caught Atlanta napping and scored on a 55-yard bomb in the third quarter.
Branch, adjusting to the attention he has received after being named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, followed one of the worst games of his career with his best day of the season.
After being held to a single catch (for 6 yards) by San Diego’s double coverage, Branch ran circles around the Falcons’ man-to-man defense to haul in eight passes for 107 yards, including a 51-yarder in the first quarter to set up the Patriots’ first score.
The catch the Falcons didn’t allow Branch to make was one of the key plays in the contest.
The Patriots took over at their 36 with 3:42 remaining after Finneran’s leap for 2 points, but the winning drive was far from a thing of beauty, as New England committed penalties on the first two plays to bog things down.
An offsides against the Falcons helped somewhat, before a 30-yard pickup, courtesy of an interference call against cornerback Allen Rossum, got the Patriots out of trouble. Rossum resorted to waylaying Branch, as the wideout adjusted to a loft from Brady at the New England 44.
“He was either going to hit me or I was going to catch the ball,” Branch said. “I think he thought I already had the ball. We needed something to happen.”
With the Falcons reeling, Brady hit Graham for 8 yards and Branch for 9 to get into field goal range.
Patrick Pass, in because Dillon left with an undisclosed injury, rambled for 15 yards up the middle, and all that remained was to figure out how much time the Patriots would leave on the clock after Vinatieri was done. The Falcons ran one play from scrimmage and the game was over.
“We were confident we were going to get back on track,” linebacker Willie McGinest said. “It’s a competitive league and we’re playing good teams. You can’t get negative and say, `Hey, the season is over,’ and everybody go crazy. It’s only Week 4 and we understand that.
“We understand this game is a marathon, it’s not a one-week season. You can’t tuck your tail between your legs, drop your head, and say, `Hey, it’s over with.’ You have to bounce back, play hard, and get ready to do the things we know how to do.”