The New England Patriots faced off on Sunday night against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome in a face-off between two teams that just fell short of reaching the Super Bowl and facing each other last season. Both teams were facing injury issues before the game with the Patriots leaving top wide receiver Danny Amendola and tight end Rob Gronkowski back home. The Falcons sat out injured former New England cornerback Asante Samuel. Before halftime, Atlanta had lost top offensive lineman Sam Baker with a knee injury and the Patriots were down their big middle of the defensive line, Vince Wilfork, to a nagging foot injury.
The game was competitive, as it was tied at halftime and both teams traded punts to open the second half. The Patriots engineered a strong drive that led to another problem so far in 2013: drives stalling in the red zone. With the ball at the four yard line, the Patriots could not convert and were forced to kick a short field goal. The Patriots lost rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson on the third down incompletion as well, as he was hit from behind going to the ground to attempt a reception in the end zone (as he was being illegally held).
With New England leading 13-10, the fourth quarter opened with the Patriots in third and long and a crowd-noise influenced false start. With their backs to the goal line facing third down and nineteen, quarterback Tom Brady stood strong in the pocket and hit undrafted rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins on a 26 yard completion with a 15 yard personal foul for unnecessary roughness on Atlanta safety William Moore tacked on the end of the play as the young receiver took a big hit and held on to get the Patriots near midfield. On the next play, running back and AFC South castoff Legarrette Blount rumbled for 47 yards and a touchdown giving the Patriots back-to-back big plays to take a 20-10 lead barely into the fourth quarter.
For Atlanta and quarterback Matt Ryan, they responded with a drive highlighted by a 38 yard penalty on Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib as he hand-checked with wide receiver Roddy White down the field. That put Atlanta down near the 20 yard line, but the Patriots defense again tightened up and slowed the Falcons offense and ended the drive with a coverage sack as rookie seventh-round draft pick Michael Buchanan finally wrapped up Matt Ryan. Atlanta was forced to kick a 45 yard field goal.
New England responded with the re-introduction of slot receiver Julian Edelman into the offense as he caught passes for 16 and 44 yards on the drive as New England continued to mix the run and pass and use play-action to open up the middle of the field in the second half. The Patriots added another score on a beautifully thrown 18 yard pass to the end zone and a diving catch by wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins for the score. It was a great throw and catch, with excellent body control by Thompkins to catch and secure the ball and somehow get a couple of body parts inbounds catching the throw over his left shoulder away from the defender.
Down 27-13, Atlanta quarterback went deep on first down and Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib continued his strong play by nabbing his fourth interception of the short season. Talib was one-on-one with Atlanta’s star receiver, Julio Jones, down the right sideline. Talib matched Jones step-for-step down the sideline, just as he had done all game long, and picked the pass out of the air as he had perfect position on Jones. After the pick, the Patriots tacked on another long field goal by kicker Stephen Gostkowski to make it 30 to 13.
The Patriots defense extended beyond just Talib, who had a fantastic game again following his star turn against Tampa Bay the week before. Without Vince Wilfork, the defensive line stayed strong in the running game with much credit to tackles Tommy Kelly and undrafted rookie Joe Vellano. The linebackers were quiet, as they spent most of the game chasing tight end Tony Gonzalez and the running backs out of the backfield in the passing game. Tony Gonzalez was near impossible to cover in the first half, and second-round draft pick Jamie Collins got some valuable learning experience from a future hall-of-famer as he and the other secondary players had a rough go of it all game long.
The Falcons drove quickly to cut the score to 30-20 as the Patriots prevent defense prevented Atlanta from facing any resistance as they drove into the end zone by, who else, tight end Tony Gonzalez. Immediately following the touchdown with just over four minutes to play, the Falcons recovered an onside kick and quickly moved the ball inside the ten yard line. Facing a fourth and one and only three minutes to play, the Falcons took the field goal attempt to cut the lead to seven points. With all three time-outs, plus the two-minute warning, Atlanta again tried the onside kick, but this time Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui covered the kick and gave the Patriots the ball at the 45 yard line and needing to run the clock down.
With a fourth down and an inch, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady juggled the snap from center Ryan Wendell and gave Atlanta a huge opportunity 63 yards away from tying the score. Matt Ryan finally connected to star wide receiver Julio Jones for 49 yard. Jones was locked up with safety Devin McCourty fighting for the ball in the air and came down with it at the 15 yard line with a minute to play. After two incompletions and a check-down to the running back, the Falcons had the ball at the ten yard line and a fourth down. Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was dinged on the play and limped off leaving the defense shorthanded on fourth and seven. Atlanta’s last chance had Matt Ryan trying to get to Roddy White single covered in the end zone by cornerback Aqib Talib who knocked it away to win the game for New England 30-23.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan took the ball to start the game and drove the Falcons down the field with ease, going six for six to start the drive and after nine plays had Atlanta at the six yard line with a first and goal. On his seventh straight completion, Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork re-injured his foot and was carted off to the locker room. While things looked grim immediately for the Patriots defense, they buckled down, forcing Ryan to throw two incompletions out of the end zone, and held Atlanta to a 23-yard field goal.
After an unimpressive first drive was highlighted (lowlighted?) by two dropped passes by rookie wide receivers leading to a punt. Atlanta, in a penalty-marred drive, punted right back to the Patriots offense. After a drive that started with a 24 yard screen pass, was followed by ten straight running plays, and then a one yard pass from quarterback Tom Brady to street free agent and reserve tight end Matthew Mulligan to put the Patriots ahead of Atlanta seven to three.
Atlanta responded with a thirteen play drive that took them from their 26 yard line to the New England seven yard line where it was fourth and two. The Falcons tried to hit Roddy White on a controlled roll out by quarterback Matt Ryan which sailed incomplete and gave the ball to New England. The Patriots took over and a Kenbrell Thompkins win of a jump ball deep downfield went for 49 yards. Although the drive stalled out, kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit a 48 yard field goal to give the Patriots a seven point lead.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons drove the ball downfield quickly taking over and driving downfield in their two minute offense and with three passes to tight end Tony Gonzalez including the touchdown to knot it up at ten.