BOSTON (CBS) — It ended up being a much, much closer finish than it needed to be, but when all was said in done in Atlanta, the Patriots walked away with a 4-0 record after a 30-23 win.
It proved to be yet another example of none of the pregame story lines actually coming to fruition, with some players stepping up when nobody expected them to — or in the case of one Patriots tight end, when nobody know who he was.
Here are the four ups and the four downs from the Patriots’ win in Atlanta.
To put it simply, the cornerback play out of Aqib Talib this year has been something we haven’t seen in New England for a long, long time. Yes, Devin McCourty made all those picks in his rookie season, but what Talib is doing is about so much more than the INTs. He played lockdown defense (as much as you can in today’s NFL) on Julio Jones all night, stepping in front of several passes from Matt Ryan and eventually getting his fourth pick of the season in the fourth quarter.
The amount of pressure Talib takes off the rest of the defense is immense, and it was fitting that it was No. 31 breaking up the pass on the play of the game in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
“He’s stepped up in every game,” Bill Belichick said of Talib after the game. “He played well, played the ball well, played against good receivers, he’s tackled well, he’s covered well, he’s done a good job for us.”
That’s the understated way to say it. The more accurate way to say it is to say there’s no way the Patriots would be 4-0 without Aqib Talib.
That was the question when No. 88 hauled in a touchdown pass from Tom Brady in the second quarter, and the answer was the tight end from Maine who had been released and re-signed from the Patriots multiple times in the past month. Obviously, Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played, and the Patriots simply needed some bodies at tight end, but Mulligan was more than that on the touchdown play.
Interestingly, Mulligan had 50 NFL games under his belt heading into Sunday night, but a whole lot more folks know him now after his touchdown catch in prime time.
Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman
With all the pregame hype focused on Julio Jones and Roddy White, it was a different pair of receivers that ended up stealing the show.
Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins did have a couple of drops, but he managed to catch six passes for 127 yards. That included an absolutely beautiful catch while falling out of bounds in the end zone for the Patriots’ third touchdown of the night. Julian Edelman had a quiet first half but was huge in the second half, finishing the night with seven receptions for 118 yards.
Considering no other Patriots player had more than 26 receiving yards, it’s safe to say Thompkins and Edelman carried the passing offense — of course with an assist to the quarterback.
The Patriots wouldn’t have won this game if not for Stephen Gostkowski. He was good from 48 yards (barely), good from 22 yards and good from 49 yards in the fourth quarter.
At the time of the third and final field goal, it looked like nothing but bonus points, as it stretched the Pats’ lead to 30-13 with 6:18 left in the game. However, the points turned out to be crucial, as the Falcons drove all the way to the Patriots’ 10-yard line looking to tie, rather than win.
For the second time in the young season, the Patriots failed to execute a fourth-and-1, but for the simplest of reasons: the snap.
Facing a fourth-and-inches in the fourth quarter, Brady never received the snap from Ryan Wendell, and the ball fell to the turf. A converted first down on that play would have won the game for the Patriots, but due to the failed center-quarterback exchange, they never had the chance.
It didn’t end up costing them a win, but it’s the type of mistake that can cost teams wins, and it needs to be eliminated sooner than later.
Vince Wilfork’s Ankle
The Patriots had to play most of this one without big Vince Wilfork clogging up the middle of the line. No. 75 left the game early when he looked to spin a bit and put pressure on his ankle while off-balance.
Wilfork had to be carted to the locker room, and we never saw him again. If there’s a member of the defense whom the Patriots can ill afford to lose long-term, it’d be Wilfork, so they have to be hoping the injury doesn’t keep Wilfork off the field for too long.
Aside from being a disappointment in the offense thus far, Sudfeld made a costly mistake on special teams late in the fourth quarter by mishandling an onside kick that had bounced right to his chest.
That’s simply a play he must make. Being a rookie is no excuse — you just have to secure the football.
It didn’t end up costing the Patriots a win, but it made things much more difficult.
Aaron Dobson’s Neck
Another injury that will hurt if it’s serious is the one to Aaron Dobson. The rookie hasn’t been outstanding, but the Patriots are thin at the position and really can’t afford to lose a man.
The rookie absorbed what looked like a truly painful hit by Thomas DeCoud in the end zone, bending his head and neck backward in an uncomfortable position. He immediately looked to be in great pain on the field, and after a sideline evaluation, he headed to the locker room.
The good news for Dobson is that he looked OK, but with Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski’s statuses consistently inconsistent, the Patriots don’t want to lose Dobson, who’s shown at least a decent grasp of the offense early in his career.