Falcons red-zone stuggles continue in loss to Patriots
ATLANTA -- The New England Patriots, being the New England Patriots, somehow sleep-walked their way through their first three games to a 3-0 record. But with so many familiar names gone from the offense, the performances didn't feel authentic in that Patriots kind of way. In a 30-23 victory over Atlanta on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, the Patriots started to get back to the type of offensive football for which Tom Brady and Bill Belichick's crew have been known for more than a decade, as they amassed a season-high 448 yards. Even with tight end Rob Gronkowski (back, forearm) and wide receiver Danny Amendola (groin) failing to make the trip, Brady made the most of some new targets and used a potent running game to build a 30-13 lead with 6:18 left in regulation. The Patriots entered the game ranking 17th in the NFL in total offense and 22nd in points per game at 19 but looked sharp on Sunday, virtually throughout. Brady, who completed 20-of-31 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns without an interception for a 119.8 rating, had entered the game with the un-Brady-like rating of 79.4, 27th among NFL quarterbacks this season. Were it not for a furious Atlanta rally that fell 10 yards short -- a familiar refrain for the Falcons (1-3), who stood the same distance away from advancing to the Super Bowl last January but similarly could not covert -- of tying, the optics would have appeared much differently. With Gronkowski and the Patriots reportedly in a dispute about when he will be healthy enough to return, Brady on Sunday leaned on undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins, whose claim to fame until Sunday was that he was Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown’s cousin. Thompkins, a Cincinnati product, caught six passes for a team-high 127 yards and a touchdown. "He's done great since he's got here," Brady said. "He's really been an impressive young player. His attitude and willingness to work, he's been great. It's really rare to see that -- a young player step in with the kind of confidence he has." Thompkins' output almost equaled what he had done in the first three games: nine catches for 130 yards. In the second quarter, Thompkins showed big-play potential, as he outleaped Atlanta safety William Moore, a Pro-Bowler last season, for a 49-yard reception. That was the key play in a drive that ended in a field goal and put New England up 10-3. Thompkins added an 18-yard touchdown reception with 9:43 to go in regulation that padded the Patriots' lead to 27-13. "I'm just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called," Thompkins said. While the score was tied at 10-10 at halftime, more than one New England offensive player pointed to the positive that the Patriots scored on two of only three possessions. On the Patriots' only touchdown drive of the first half, they used a sequence of 10 consecutive running plays, hammering at the gut of the Falcons' defense, which has been decimated by injuries. The Patriots finished with 132 rushing yards on 31 attempts for the game. "It's always good to have balance and we will do whatever we need to do to try and make that work," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. With the Falcons' down 27-13, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan forced a deep ball to Julio Jones -- who was mostly shut down on the night by Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib -- and Talib picked it off. The ensuing Patriots' drive resulted in field goal with 6:18 left for that 17-point bulge. From there, a strange sequence of events followed that moved Atlanta within striking distance of tying the game in the final minute. Tony Gonzalez caught his second touchdown reception of the game with 4:22 left to cap an 80-yard drive. Then the Falcons recovered an onside kick and made a 25-yard field goal with 2:55 left to pull within one score. New England recovered the Falcons' next onside kickoff attempt but on fourth-and-inches from the Falcons' 37, Brady fumbled the snap for a one-yard loss and Atlanta took over on downs. "Poor execution," Brady said. "It shouldn't happen."
As soon as the Falcons took over, Ryan completed a 49-yard pass to Jones at New England's 13 with 1:50 left in regulation but the Falcons' season-long red zone woes reared their heads again. On top of going 2-for-5 last week in a 27-23 loss at Miami, the Falcons went 1-for-6 on Sunday. On fourth down from the 10, Ryan threw incomplete for Roddy White in the end zone. Now, for the first time in head coach Mike Smith's six seasons, the Falcons find themselves two games under .500. "That is what we are, we are a 1-3 football team," Smith said. "We've had opportunities and we haven't made the most of those opportunities." Meanwhile, New England once again is off and running. "We're missing quite a few guys," Brady said, "so, hopefully, when we get them back, we'll be more efficient." That's putting it mildly. If they can do it with Kenbrell Thompkins, just imagine what they'll do with Gronkowski and Amendola.