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BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots won on the road on Sunday night, and that is most definitely a positive development. Yet it’s hard to really focus on the events of the game given the devastating blow the defense suffered with the loss of Vince Wilfork.
Big No. 75 went down early, and as soon as he was shown without a shoe or sock riding on the back of that golf cart, you knew it wasn’t good. About five hours later, though, it was reported to be even worse than could have been imagined, as the season is now over for the anchor of the Patriots’ defense.
Can the Patriots survive without Wilfork? I honestly do not know. He has been the central figure of the defense for years, and the team has never had to get by without him. He’s missed just six games since 2004, and he’s only gotten more dominant and more vital to the Patriots’ defensive operation with each year that passed.
What changes now, despite Atlanta’s inability to exploit it, is that opposing teams will be able to run the ball up the gut, which has never been a problem for Bill Belichick’s Patriots. It may not be an absence that is noticeable on every snap, like Aqib Talib’s injury during the AFC Championship Game that completely changed the game, but it is the type of loss that simply will make every play that much more difficult for the 11 men on defense. Even when he wasn’t dominating, he was drawing double teams, holding his ground and disrupting whatever it was the offense was trying to do.
And that’s the crux of it. Is the season over? No, not by a long shot. But on the list of players the Patriots could not afford to lose if the goal is a Super Bowl, Wilfork was right near the top.
As big of a blow it is to lose big Vince, there’s still plenty to go over, so let’s run through the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 30-23 victory in Atlanta.
–If there is hope for the defense, it comes from Aqib Talib.
Talib is playing cornerback at a level we haven’t seen in these parts since — dare I saw — Ty Law manned the outside many moons ago. And it’s not just the picks, though his read and play on the ball to intercept Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter was very well done and ended up proving to be rather important. Talib’s impact comes more from just his sound man coverage, which allows the rest of the defense so much more flexibility in attacking the other four skill players on the field. (For example, you had two Patriots mauling Tony Gonzalez at the line late in the game, refusing to let him get past the five-yard window for contact.)
You just know the guy is special when he can make his hats defy the laws of gravity.
Check out his technique on Julio Jones on Julio Jones on this one play in the first quarter:
That’s Jones looking back to the line of scrimmage for the pass, and that’s Talib staring at the receiver’s face and chest, his back to the quarterback. And here’s how the play ended:
That was just one play, but it’s indicative of how comfortable Talib is to be on an island with an elite receiver and just make plays.
The broadcast showed the numbers, and they were nothing short of great. He was thrown at eight times and he allowed just one reception for one yard while making one interception. He has single-handedly changed the way we all look at the Patriots’ pass defense.
–And the best part about Talib? He hardly ever celebrates … and when he does, it is awesome.
–While we’re talking defense, let’s mention Chandler Jones. If you look at the box score, it tells you the defensive end was hardly there at all, but he was crucial in keeping the game close early on. With the Falcons already up 3-0, they got the ball back at their own 25-yard line. On their first play, Jacquizz Rodgers burst through the line for a gain of 18 yards, firing up the home crowd. But it all came back, because left tackle Sam Baker couldn’t handle Jones and hauled him down to the turf, nowhere near the ball carrier.
Two plays later, Jones again overwhelmed Baker, drawing a facemask penalty that set the Falcons up with a second-and-24 and a third-and-20.
Jones has been whatever you want to call him this year — a beast, a freak, a monster. Whatever he is, he’s the real deal, he’s shown improvement from last year, and he’s a major part of the defensive turnaround.
–On the fair catch when Julian Edelman got de-cleated without a call … two things.
One, that was absurd. Devin McCourty had let Drew Davis go, meaning they were no longer engaged after Edelman waved for the fair catch. On top of that, it wasn’t a standard incidental collision. Davis saw Edelman, sized him up and launched into him, driving his shoulder right up through Edelman’s jaw.
That is illegal in just about every single scenario that could take place on a football field.
But the second part is the better part. The missed call by the officials (and don’t let Cris Collinsworth convince you that it was a good non-call, that’s ridiculous) cost the Patriots 16 yards of field position, but it might have fired them up a bit too. Stevan Ridley made up for all the lost yards and more on the first play of the ensuing drive, picking up 24 yards on a little play-action screen to the left side. After that, it was time for a dominant rushing attack to emerge.
LeGarrette Blount for three yards.
Brandon Bolden for eight.
Ridley for seven.
Ridley for 14.
Blount for four (end of quarter).
Bolden for three.
Bolden for four.
Bolden for two.
Ridley stuffed from the 1-yard line.
After the nine straight rushing plays, the Falcons were caught off guard on third down, leaving Matthew Mulligan just open enough for Tom Brady to thread the needle with a touchdown pass to give the Patriots the lead for the first time of the night.
It was an impressive showing for the ground game, and it came at a great time.
–I’d be willing to wager that I wasn’t the only person in New England who received a “Who the [expletive] is Matthew Mulligan???” text from my brother at 9:14 p.m.
(I responded with, “He went to Maine. Maine!”)
–One bizarre note on Mulligan: That was his second career NFL touchdown, as he caught one last year with St. Louis. Do you know how many touchdowns he had in college, at Maine, playing against Youngstown State, the University of New Hampshire and Shaw University? He had two touchdowns there, and he now has two touchdowns against the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Falcons. Sports, particularly assessing the skills of collegiate athletes and projecting their impact at the pro level, sure are weird sometimes.
–The Falcons were 0-for-2 on fourth-down conversions, making Patriots opponents 0-for-6 on fourth down this year. That’s all well and good for the defense, but it’s hard to give them too much credit when the failed fourth down comes when the quarterback who’s nicknamed “Ice” for “ice in his veins” tightens up and overthrows a wide open receiver by about 10 yards. That was more Matty Imprecise than it was Matty Ice.
–It’s pretty incredible the Patriots won when you consider the Falcons were capable of shooting flames out of their heads.
–Kenbrell Thompkins had a couple of drops, and he managed to bobble nearly every single one of his six receptions, but still, the kid had a great game. He deserves credit — and I gave it to him in the Four Ups, Four Downs feature — but he lucked out big time on his big 49-yard reception over the middle of the field. Due to a Brady underthrow that was caused by pressure in the pocket after the fake dive/fake end-around, Thompkins came back to the ball and out-jumped safety William Moore. However, Thompkins forgot that he’d need to have his arms together in order to make the catch, but fortunately for him, Moore’s shoulder pad was there to save the day.
Still, it was cool to see Brady have that much faith in Thompkins, essentially saying, “Go up and get it, son.”
–This bothered me a lot — the NFL mobile commercial where the guy agrees to go apple picking on a Sunday. What, is he supposed to just fire up some football on his phone while apple picking? That’s going to go over well with his wife? No. That phone is going to end up getting thrown across three rows of Cortlands before he even makes it through one commercial break.
They really should have consulted me before running with that ad campaign.
–Here’s another question I have: What kind of psychopath sits at home and makes a sign like this?
What are that guy’s hobbies? Actually, I’d rather not know.
–OK, one, why would you ever want or get this? An NFC champion ring? Is that what your goal is for the Falcons? Just make the Super Bowl and don’t actually win it?
Two, why am I trying to determine the logic that was used by a man wearing a foam ring on his head? That’s a “me” issue.
–”Hi, my name is Thomas Brady. I have 11 cats. Would you like to come over and knit mittens with me?”
–Brady had a pretty good night, topping 300 yards for the first time of the season and slinging a touchdown for the 52nd straight game, but his lack of excellence in the red zone without Rob Gronkowski resurfaced in the drive that ended with Aaron Dobson’s painful neck injury.
On second-and-goal, Brandon Bolden was open in the right flat, but Brady never looked his way.
On third-and-goal, Bolden was again left alone in the right flat, albeit short of the end zone, but Brady never looked his way and instead forced a pass to Dobson.
Life is just a whole lot easier when a humongous man wearing No. 87 can stand under the goal posts and catch everything within 15 feet of his chest.
–Still, I did like that Cris Collinsworth referred to the 26-yard completion to Thompkins at the beginning of the fourth quarter as “Third-and-impossible.” Tom Brady makes the impossible possible. Now if only he had a cool nickname like Tommy Ice.
–Was Aaron Dobson not defenseless here? I’d like to hear an explanation as to how he was anything but completely defenseless.
–How unbelievable was the LeGarrette Blount burst of speed on the 47-yard touchdown run? Well, it was enough to get Bobby K up and out of his seat.
–Tony Gonzalez, who was playing in the NFL when Aaron Dobson was 6 years old, finished the night with 12 receptions, 149 yards and two touchdowns. That was a career-high in yards, it was tied for his second-most TDs in a game, and the 12 catches were his third-most ever in a game. And he’s played in more than 250 of them, so that was some night out of the future Hall of Famer.
–It was good to see Dante Scarnecchia get some face time and recognition on national TV. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a notebook full of grades for offensive line coaches around the league, but still, Starnecchia does outstanding work. He’s kept Tom Brady clean for his entire career, and offensive line has really never been a weak spot for the Patriots. No matter who goes down or which previously unknown guy steps in, the offensive line has been remarkably consistent for a long time, and Scarnecchia’s work can sometimes go unnoticed.
–Who would have thought that Julio Jones and Roddy White would end the night as the game’s fourth- and seventh-leading receivers, respectively?
–I was thinking that for Tom Brady’s next charitable endeavor, he could auction off his post-touchdown celebration with receivers, when he grabs their heads and smashes facemasks with them and hoots and hollers right in their faces.
A lot of people would pay a lot of money for a chance to experience that moment right there.
–Speaking of Brady, do you think the dialogue for his conversation with Walt Coleman was something like, “Hey there, Walt. Thanks for like, you know, my career.”
–Lloyd Christmas was in attendance for the game, which to me was a much bigger deal than Floyd Mayweather.
–The drops of the Patriots receivers have been highlighted a lot this year, and with good reason, but it’s important to note that it’s hardly a problem that only plagues the Patriots. Matt Ryan hit Levin Toilolo in the hands in the end zone, but the pass bounced off the tight end’s hands, and the Falcons had to settle for a field goal instead of cutting the lead to three points.
–All week, we heard how the Patriots’ 3-0 record wasn’t indicative of much, that they hadn’t faced anybody good yet and that their first “true test” would come Sunday night in Atlanta. They may not have aced the test, but they earned a solid B+, and they now have a 4-0 record for just the third time in the Bill Belichick era. It certainly looks different, but it’s working. Now can I get a “Woo!” from Bobby K??!!