For weeks, we’ve all been fascinated by the Patriots’ ability to withstand the loss of so many receiving targets.
What they’ve really decided to do is work around it, and set up the offense in a way you wouldn’t think you’d have to when you have Tom Brady under center.
The Patriots decided to run early on, and body punch the Falcons into submission during a 30-23 win on the road. A frantic comeback by the Falcons’ offense didn’t change the fact the Patriots leaned on them throughout.
In the first half, the Patriots ran the ball on 15 of their 24 snaps, playing a game with a payoff that they had to trust to be cumulative, since they lack quick-strike targets in the passing game.
Ordinarily, if you have Brady and you let him throw it nine times in a half, you’d be sued for malpractice.
But the cracks started to show in the Falcons defense as the night went on, and LeGarrette Blount’s 47-yard touchdown cannot be explained by his athleticism alone.
The Falcons have been thinned up front by injuries, so pounding on them isn’t a unique approach. But it was an effective one.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. The Falcons are now 1-3, defying reason.
If it doesn’t turn around quickly (though their comeback indicates it might), they will have wasted a remarkable final year by Tony Gonzalez.
Despite not going through much of what you’d call training camp or preseason, Gonzalez hit the Patriots for 12 catches for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
His professionalism has allowed him to stay at this level at the age of 37. He’s a mismatch the Patriots couldn’t cover in the first half, and they’re not the first team he’s done this to.
2. Tonight was a night when the Falcons could have really used a reliable running game of their own.
When Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork left early with an ankle injury, there was a hole in the middle, but the Falcons aren’t built to capitalize on it while Steven Jackson’s out with a hamstring strain.
Jason Snelling’s an acceptable backup option with some short-yardage skills, but not a long-term answer. They stuck with Michael Turner beyond his expiration date, and Jackson would be a perfect replacement. But only if he’s on the field.
Of course, there are problems up front on the offensive line that keep it from being as effective as in the past as well, and those might be the bigger one. But Jackson’s absence was evident.
3. Speaking of Wilfork, it sounds crazy to say he’s under-appreciated, he’s one of the best players in the NFL. But the impact he has on a defense is undeniable.
The Patriots have some clear issues on defense, and Gonzalez exploits many of them. They don’t have the linebacker or safety to take away a pass-catching tight end across the middle.
Wilfork’s not going to do that, but having him chewing up the middle of a line makes it easier for the Patriots to patch behind him.
If he’s out for any amount of time with this right ankle problem, the Patriots have a major issue.
4. It’s easy to wonder if Brady even bothers to learn the names of the people he’s distributing the ball to.
All his normal targets are hurt (or elsewhere or otherwise detained), but he still spreads the ball efficiently enough, whether he’s throwing it to Rob Gronkowski or Matthew Mulligan.
He’s also not turning around and handing it to Adrian Peterson or anything, but they’re still able to run play-action no matter who’s behind him.
Quarterbacks are the great deodorant in the NFL, and if you have a good one, it takes care of a lot of other problems.
5. Great call, Greg Schiano.
Blount and Aqib Talib clearly couldn’t help the Buccaneers right now.
Talib is working on making himself rich, with four interceptions in four games. He signed a one-year deal with the Patriots after coming over from Tampa Bay in trade last year.
Certainly the situation is more stable in New England, which allows them to take on somebody else’s problem (see No. 4), but Patriots coach Bill Belichick fleeced his pal on those two deals, which netted the Bucs a fourth-rounder and track star Jeff Demps.