ATLANTA — The strategy the Patriots used Sunday night to clip the Falcons, 30-23, and improve to 4-0 was made famous by Muhammad Ali almost 40 years ago.
Yup, the Patriots utilized the old rope-a-dope to rack up a season high in yards (448) and points, averaging an impressive 7.2 yards per play.
Ali used the tactic to lull George Foreman to sleep in their classic 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle,” and the Patriots used it to perfection in Sunday night’s victory.
They did it by utilizing different offensive attacks in each half.
The first half was all about grinding the clock and establishing the run. The Patriots had just three possessions in the first half to keep the ball away from the Falcons’ explosive offense, and they went run heavy, as quarterback Tom Brady attempted just nine passes, and completed only five.
But Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden, and LeGarrette Blount rushed 14 times for 65 yards, and most impressive was their second drive of the game, when the Patriots ran the ball 10 straight times for 50 yards. They did most of their damage running behind right guard Dan Connolly and left tackle Nate Solder, running right at Falcons end Osi Umenyiora and tackle Jonathan Babineaux. They tried to jam the ball in from the 1 but settled for a 1-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Mulligan on a play-action fake.
“You could kind of see it in the defense’s eyes — they were getting tired of it,” tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said. “That’s when you’ve got to push harder, and that’s what we did, got points out of it.”
With the run clearly established, the Patriots opened up the offense in the second half, with Brady throwing 22 times (and completing 15) for 220 yards.
With the Falcons cheating up against the run, Brady used the play-action pass to perfection, hitting Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, and Julian Edelman for 10, 26, and 34 yards — the chunk plays the Patriots had been missing through their first three games of the season.
“Every good football team has to have a balanced attack, so that’s what we were trying to do,” said Ridley, who finished with 53 yards on 11 carries and two catches for 26 yards. “Go in there, establish the run, try to get downhill with the ball and let Brady go to work.”
Overall, the Patriots had six possessions in the second half, compared with just three in the first, and scored 20 points to build a seemingly comfortable 30-13 lead.
They had three scoring drives of 80-plus yards in the second half, and overall gained 288 total yards in the final two quarters.
For the game, the Patriots called 31 rushes and 31 passes.
“We had our moments,” coach Bill Belichick said in a moment of understatement. “It’s always good to have balance, but we’ll do whatever we need to do to make that work.”
Brady had his most efficient game (the fourth-down fumbled snap late in the fourth quarter notwithstanding), completing 20 of 31 passes for a season-high 316 yards. And Edelman and Thompkins were the stars, each compiling 100-yard games — seven catches for 118 yards for Edelman, and six catches for 127 yards and a touchdown for Thompkins.
Thompkins had a few untimely drops, but Sunday night was his first 100-yard game, and he now has three touchdowns this season.
Playing without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, both still out with injuries, and losing Dobson in the third quarter with a neck injury, the Patriots put their future opponents on notice Sunday night. They can beat a solid team like the Falcons, and they can do it with a bunch of rookies and journeymen like Thompkins, Mulligan, and Blount (nine carries for 64 yards and a 47-yard touchdown).
“They’re getting better each and every day, it’s obvious to see that,” Hoomanawanui said of the team’s young skill players. “As long as they keep doing that, I think the sky is the limit for these young guys.”
But the unsung heroes of the game, again, were the five offensive linemen up front. Brady had plenty of time to throw all night and was not sacked for the first time this season.
They also opened huge holes for the running backs, which was especially impressive in the first half, when everyone in the building knew they were going to run the ball on that second drive.
Connolly, who has been a bit inconsistent this year, had the perfect block on a pull to spring Blount for his big touchdown.
“My hat’s off to our offensive line for pushing those guys around and doing a spectacular job up front,” Ridley said. “We try to focus on being balanced and that’s what we did tonight. A few different guys touched it and a few different guys got it done.”
And Brady’s big throw to Thompkins in the fourth quarter, a 26-yard play to convert on third and 19, was all about the offensive line. Blount scored his touchdown on the very next play to put the game seemingly out of reach.
“The third-and-whatever it was, that we hit Thompkins on, was real good protection, and Tom was able to step up and make the throw,” Belichick said. “That was a huge play in the game.”
A loud cheer from inside the Patriots’ locker room could be heard from the hallway about 15 minutes after the final whistle. The Patriots haven’t always been smooth on offense this year, but perhaps their early struggles against the Bills and Jets were part of the rope-a-dope strategy.
The rest of the NFL can keep thinking that the Patriots will struggle on offense. But they’re finding their rhythm with both the run game and pass game, the rookies are getting more comfortable, and Gronkowski and Amendola will be back soon enough.
“We’re steadily rolling, man,” Ridley said. “Regardless of what they say, we’re 4-0 right now. So we’re going to enjoy this win, but we get back to work tomorrow.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.