By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 30, 2013

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ATLANTA -- Kenbrell Thompkins looks like he has Tom Brady's trust. Aqib Talib has had everyone's trust for quite some time.

Thompkins shook off two drops and made 6 catches for 127 yards including a touchdown, and Aqib Talib put the clamps on Julio Jones all game long and made two key plays in the fourth quarter. The Patriots took a 17-point fourth quarter lead on the Atlanta Falcons, then held on at the end for a 30-23 win on Sunday night at the Georgia Dome.

The Patriots were cruising, 30-13 in the fourth quarter, but the Patriots let the Falcons back into the game with an easy touchdown drive, a recovered onside kick, and a field goal to reduce the margin to only seven points. Tom Brady then failed to put the game away by fumbling a snap on fourth and one at the Atlanta 37 just after the two minute warning, and the Falcons had the ball with 1:15 left, two timeouts and a chance to at least send the game to overtime.

The game came down to a final play with Atlanta perched at the Patriot 10-yard line, fourth down and seven. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who played his college ball out at Chestnut Hill, could have had a first down without getting a touchdown, and perhaps run some clock off in case they did score so that Brady would not be able to respond in regulation. But Ryan went for the game-tying touchdown instead of the first down. He had Roddy White in the right corner of the end zone, but Talib, who was a step behind in coverage, managed to knock the well-thrown ball away just before White was able to haul in the pass over his right shoulder. The Patriots took over on downs and ran out the clock.

Talib had done a great job all game long in checking Jones, his main assignment. Jones did manage six catches for 108 yards, but that is skewed by a terrific 49-yard left sideline grab on the first play of the final offensive possession for the Falcons in which Devin McCourty was in coverage, not Talib. Jones spent part of the fourth quarter on the bench with an injury, and other than that great catch against McCourty, never really was a factor in the offensive flow of the game for the Falcons.

One area where Ryan and head coach Mike Smith might be second guessing is why they didn't go to future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez more often. Gonzalez had 12 catches for 149 yards and there wasn't a Patriot who consistently covered him well. On the final drive for the Falcons, the Patriots literally mauled him within five yards of the line of scrimmage so that he would not be a factor in tying the game. Otherwise, Gonzalez was the offensive hero for the Falcons in what may be his final season in the league.

The Patriots used the run to set up the pass early, and Brady was able to get into a rhythm and comfort zone thanks to that strategy. LeGarrette Blount averaged 7.1 yards per carry, and that figure is skewed by a 47-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter where he ran up the middle, encountered a crowd and cut left, outrunning Desmond Trufant to the end zone. Stevan Ridley had 53 yards rushing and a 4.8 yards per carry. The team totals were 132 yards and a 4.3 yard average.

This allowed Brady to work Thompkins and Julian Edelman into the offensive flow later on. Thompkins continues to shake off his early troubles with a fine evening, capping it off with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Brady on a floater along the left sideline with Trufant in pursuit. Edelman had seven catches for 118 yards.

Brady finished with 20 of 31 passing for 316 yards, two touchdowns (the other scoring pass was caught by free agent tight end Matthew Mulligan in the second quarter) and a 119.8 rating. Brady had two uncharacteristic gaffes during the game, a delay of game penalty in the third quarter, and the fumble which nearly enabled the Falcons to tie the game in the final seconds. Facing fourth down and one at the Atlanta 37 just after the two-minute warning, Brady mishandled the snap from Ryan Wendell and lost a yard. The Brady sneak is perhaps the closest thing to a sure thing in the NFL, but it was the second time during the game that it failed; an earlier successful sneak was nullified on an illegal shift penalty in the first quarter.

Another uncharacteristic mistake helped to nearly blow the lead for the Patriots. After Ryan hit Gonzalez with an 11-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to make it 30-20 Patriots, the Falcons tried an onside kick. Zach Sudfeld, who has a long way to go to be called the next Christian Fauria, muffed the bouncing ball and Stephan Nicholas fell on the loose ball. The Patriots would yield only a field goal, but it was a play the Patriots make almost automatically over the years, most famously when Fauria recovered an onside kick in Super Bowl XXXIX to help preserve a Patriot championship.

Ryan finished 34 of 54 passing for 421 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the one interception brought his rating down to a still-good 91.7. In the absence of Steven Jackson, running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 58 yards rushing and a 3.9 yards per carry average.

A key play early on turned out to be damaging for the Falcons late in the game. In the second quarter, the Falcons were at the Patriot 7-yard line, fourth and two. Smith opted to go for the first down instead of the chip shot field goal. Ryan rolled out to his left, then overthrew White in the end zone with (guess who) Talib defending the play. The margin of victory was seven, but kicking a field goal in that situation might have helped the Falcons as they mounted their comeback in the fourth quarter.

The Patriots travel to the Queen City next week for a date with the Cincinnati Bengals, who followed their epic win at Green Bay last week with a stinker at Cleveland. The Patriots cannot be sure what Bengals team they will get. What the Bengals don't know, along with anyone on the Patriots, is whether or not they will have to deal with Rob Gronkowski as the All-Pro tight end seems healthy enough to play but, according to reports, is being held out by Gronkowski himself, his doctors and other family members.

But to win at Atlanta, on Sunday night, and to withstand the late charge from the Falcons, is huge for the 4-0 Patriots. They continue to win without Gronk, so if he plays or not, it's almost like, who cares?


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