ATLANTA — The Falcons made things highly interesting at the end, but the Patriots left the Georgia Dome late Sunday night with a 30-23 win thanks to a touchdown-preventing pass breakup from Aqib Talib.
The closing minutes saw the Falcons make a flurry of plays in a desperate attempt to come back, including an amazing 49-yard reception by Julio Jones with just under two minutes to play that put them at the New England 13.
But Matt Ryan was off the mark on the first-down pass for Harry Douglas, then threw high to Tony Gonzalez in the end zone. On third down, he went short to running back Jacquizz Rodgers, and he picked up 3 yards.
Now in the must-get-it situation — fourth and 7 from the 10 — Ryan looked to Roddy White in the right third of the end zone, and Talib, who was stellar in coverage all night, kept White from making the catch.
“Aqib’s played great for us all year, all the way back to the spring training camp,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s stepped up in every game, played well, played the ball well, played against good receivers, and he’s tackled well, he’s covered well, he’s done a good job for us.”
Atlanta had scored 10 quick points over 3:18 of the fourth quarter, helped oddly enough when the replay machine went on the fritz with just under six minutes to go after Belichick challenged whether Jones had control of the ball before he was drilled by Devin McCourty and fumbled out of bounds.
The initial call was a fumble, and the ball was spotted for a 17-yard gain and first down at the Falcons’ 37; Belichick wanted it to be called an incompletion. But unable to look at the replay, referee Walt Coleman said the original call would stand.
Two plays later, Douglas turned a short catch into a 40-yard gain on third down, and two plays after that ageless tight end Gonzalez got his second touchdown of the game, an 11-yard catch.
Atlanta went for an onside kick, and Patriots rookie Zach Sudfeld couldn’t hang onto the ball; instead it was recovered by the Falcons’ Stephen Nicholas.
Jones, kept in check by Talib in the first three quarters with three catches for 22 yards on eight targets, had a 20-yard catch on the possession (on that play, as well as the 49-yard catch, Jones was covered by Alfonzo Dennard, not Talib), putting the Falcons in the red zone.
But instead of trying to run it or quarterback sneak it on third and 1 from the 7, Ryan attempted a pass for little-used tight end Levine Toilolo that went incomplete. The Falcons converted a short field goal on fourth down.
Atlanta tried another onside kick, and this time New England recovered it.
On their own third and 1, the Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount was stopped for no gain, and this time the replay machine was working; Belichick challenged the spot of the ball, as it appeared Blount got to the first-down marker on second effort. But again the ruling on the field was upheld.
At the Atlanta 37, it was a bit too far for the Patriots to try a field goal, and with under two minutes to play, converting the fourth down meant they could kill more clock.
But the snap between Ryan Wendell and Tom Brady was fumbled and the Falcons recovered, setting up their last-gasp try to get the tying and overtime-forcing touchdown.
Instead, Talib rose to the occasion, and the Patriots rode back home to New England with a 4-0 record for the first time since 2007.
Atlanta fell to 1-3 and lost back-to-back games for the first time since in 2009.
“Once again, 60 minutes, that’s the way it is in the NFL and I’m really proud of the way our team played today,” Belichick said. “We played a good second half against a good football team. I mean, that’s a good club that coach [Mike] Smith has over there, they fought us right till the end and fortunately we were able to make a couple more plays than they did.
“It’s a good example of what it takes to win in this league, and that’s 60 minutes of good football.”
The teams entered halftime tied at 10-10, after Atlanta scored a touchdown late in the second quarter. The points came on a 21-yard catch-and-run from Gonzalez, the final play of an eight-play, 80-yard drive for the home team.
Gonzalez had back-to-back receptions for 25 yards to start the possession, and finished the first half with a game-high five catches for 61 yards and the touchdown.
The Patriots suffered a significant loss early in the game, as Vince Wilfork was carted off the field with a right ankle injury during the opening drive. He didn’t return.
The Falcons were moving the ball with ease for the first nine plays of that opening possession, showing quickly why they’d outscored opponents, 31-0, in the first quarter over their first three games.
A third-and-2 Ryan pass to Gonzalez went for 25 yards. Jerod Mayo and Steve Gregory were right there but Gonzalez went high to pull in the pass.
Atlanta mixed things up play-call-wise, with screens to Rodgers, Douglas, and Jones, and carries by Rodgers and Jason Snelling.
On second and 7 from the Patriots’ 20, White had a 14-yard gain when Dennard overran White on the sideline, leaving him open for the reception. But that’s where the Falcons stalled, with a screen for Jones gaining a yard, and then Ryan throwing out of the end zone twice.
Matt Bryant converted the 23-yard field goal for the 3-0 lead.
New England punted on its first possession, as did Atlanta on its second. When the Patriots got the ball back, they ran the ball on 10 straight snaps and had great success despite the Falcons coming in as the fifth-ranked defense against the run in the league.
The drive began with a screen pass to Stevan Ridley, his second catch of the season, that he took for 24 yards.
Then alternating between Ridley, Blount, and Brandon Bolden (who left the game later in the second quarter with a knee injury but was able to return), the Patriots picked up 50 yards on the ground, including a 14-yard run by Ridley through a big hole in the middle of the Falcons’ defense, helped in part by fullback James Develin.
On first and goal from the 3, it looked like Bolden scored, pushing linebacker Joplo Bartu back and diving for the goal line, but on review it was overturned, as Bolden’s knee was down before the ball crossed the plane of the goal line.
Ridley then was stuffed for no gain, and on third down, perhaps the most unexpected of receivers, Matthew Mulligan, pulled in the touchdown.
Atlanta gambled on fourth and 2 when it got the ball back, passing up a short field goal to try to get a touchdown. White was open near the left sideline, but Ryan’s throw was off.
Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, who had a drop earlier, made an impressive 49-yard grab over safety William Moore, the tail end of a fake-handoff, fake-reverse play that was the highlight of New England’s next possession.
Stephen Gostkowski tucked a 48-yard field goal try just inside the right upright for a 10-3 Patriots lead.
The Patriots got a 22-yard field goal from Gostkowski in the third quarter to take a 13-10 lead and then went up, 20-10, just 34 seconds into the fourth quarter on a 47-yard run by Blount.
Right guard Dan Connolly pulled left at the snap, and helped open up a large hole for Blount, who picked up steam once he got to the second level and could not be caught.
It was the first rushing TD of the season for New England.
A play earlier, the Patriots converted on third and 19, with Brady (316 yards, 2 TDs) hitting Thompkins with a 26-yard gain over the middle; Thompkins took a hit from Moore at the end of the play, and the safety was called for a personal foul.