FOXBOROUGH - During player introductions before yesterday’s game against the Falcons, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was fixing his knee brace. Eventually, he got it the way he wanted. Brady can say the same about the outcome of yesterday’s game, but not about the Patriots’ offense, which still needs a little adjustment.
Even with an offense that remains a work in progress and continues to cease progress in the red zone, the Patriots still scored an impressive 26-10 gut-check win over the previously undefeated Falcons (2-1) at soggy Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots defense shut out and shut down the Falcons and former Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan in the second half. Both teams had 179 yards of total offense at the half, with New England clinging to a 13-10 lead. Atlanta was relegated to just 15 offensive plays and 78 yards in the second half and didn’t convert a third down (0 for 4). Meanwhile, New England gained 266 yards and ran 47 plays.
It was reminiscent of what the Jets did to the Patriots last week in New England’s 16-9 loss.
"Yeah, it was tough to lose last week. This was a big one to get back on top of," said defensive lineman Mike Wright, part of a defense that limited Atlanta to 17 rushes for 58 yards in the game. "You don’t want to lose two in a row early. This one was big, just like they all are, but this one was big."
Brady (25 of 42 for 277 yards with a touchdown) put the game away and etched his name in the record books on a play that required an adjustment by himself and tight end Chris Baker, following a timeout. On third and 6, Brady found Baker down the sideline for a 36-yard touchdown that extended the New England lead to 16 with 7:47 to pay and was the 200th TD pass of Brady’s career.
"Just players being players, being on the same page," said Baker.
It didn’t look like Brady and his receivers were reading from the same playbook inside the red zone, as once again the Patriots turned the territory inside the opponents’ 20-yard line into a dead zone.
The only successful red zone trip came courtesy of Fred Taylor, who had his first 100-yard rushing game as a Patriot (21 carries for 105 yards). At the Atlanta 41, the Patriots handed the ball to Taylor four straight times, the last of which was an 8-yard run with 11:41 left in the second quarter that put New England on top, 10-3.
"He ran great," said Brady. "He’s really shifty, so even when there’s not a lot of room in there he makes yards whenever we give him the ball. He’s a really good player for us, and we’ve got to get him the ball."
New England (2-1) ended just 1 of its 5 red zone opportunities in the end zone and is now just 4 of 13 on the season in red zone TD conversion. It had to settle for Stephen Gostkowski field goals on drives of 15 plays, 12 plays, 13 plays, and 16 plays that bogged down inside the 20.
Gostkowski, who tied his career high with four field goals, gave the Patriots a 13-10 lead at the half with a 33-yard field goal with 20 seconds left before the half.
That drive was set up when safety Brandon McGowan stripped Falcons running back Michael Turner and James Sanders recovered at the New England 27. Brady and Co., advanced to the Falcons’ 15, but stopped there after three straight incompletions, including a drop by wide receiver Joey Galloway, who had boos rain down on him.
Brady was just 3 for 10 for 10 yards inside the red zone.
"We know we had another bad [day] in the red area," said guard Logan Mankins, part of an offensive line that cleared the way for 168 yards rushing on 39 carries and didn’t allow a sack. "We can’t continue that. We need to fix that. We scored some points, but we need to get 7 instead of 3. Three is not good enough very often."
The Patriots added another field goal on the opening drive of the second half and extended their lead to 19-10 on the first play of the fourth quarter. In a gut-check game, Belichick showed some guts on the final field goal drive.
He went for it on fourth and 1 from his 24 - Sammy Morris picked up 2 yards - and again on fourth and 3 from the Atlanta 37, when Brady found Randy Moss (10 catches for 116 yards) for an 8-yard gain.
"We stepped up and made some plays that we needed to make," said Belichick.
The defense and Baker took it from there.
Few would have believed that Baker (two receptions for 42 yards) would have a bigger impact on the game than Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who was blanketed and bracketed by the Patriots. Gonzalez had only one grab, a 16-yard reception in the fourth quarter, as both he and the Falcons, who came in averaging 23.5 points per game, were held down.
"We have confidence in the defense anyways, but to hold an offense like this to 10 points is definitely a confidence-booster," said cornerback Leigh Bodden, who was beaten by Michael Jenkins for an apparent 36-yard touchdown in the third quarter that was negated by offensive pass interference. "We have to put it past us and look to next week."
Next week brings the Ravens and the possibility of another game in which points are hard to come by.
For now, the Patriots should be content at 2-1, knowing their best football has yet to be played.
"Yeah, it’s nice to be 2-1," said Mankins. "We’ve had two ugly games and then today was a little better, so maybe we’re making some progress."