So, the teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are each 4-0. Business as usual, right? Well, not quite. While Manning is setting league scoring and efficiency records with a Denver Broncos offense that may feature the best receiver corps he's ever had, Brady continues to amaze -- and perplex -- by pulling out victories despite a group of targets that brings the term "inexperienced" to a new level. With Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola out again with injuries, Brady was stuck doing what he's done all season -- throwing passes in an unheralded and underwhelming offense.
That's the narrative, but with four games in the books, perhaps we need to re-think the Patriots in a general sense. The 1-3 Atlanta Falcons, who were beaten 30-23 in a game that was not as close as the score indicated, were embarrassed in their inability to turn their estimable talent into points. It was much closer than the 23-3 beatdown the Pats put on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the week before, but the Falcons are far more talented. They have amazing receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, the best tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez, and though the offensive line is nothing special, the league's best quarterbacks are known to make their lines look better. In that regard, Atlanta's Matt Ryan is most certainly not one of the league's best quarterbacks, and it's shown up hard in the most important part of the game -- the part where teams score touchdowns.
Coming into this game, the Falcons ranked 19th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted team efficiency rankings in the red zone, and 21st in goal-to-go situations. It's a liability that their head coach understands implicitly.
"The responsibility goes to me," Mike Smith said after the Falcons' 27-23 loss to the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. "It doesn't go to the quarterback. It doesn't go the offensive line. It doesn't go to the offensive coordinator. It's my responsibility as head coach to make sure we are more efficient in the red zone, and I can assure you that's something that will be addressed."
Well, the Falcons did not address it on this night. Ryan was prolific if not efficient -- 34-of-54 for 421 yards, two touchdowns and one interception -- but what the stat line doesn't show is the number of plays he left on the field. Ryan threw off balance at times when he didn't need to, zinged passes to his receivers that did not give him the advantage, and failed to make crucial plays when they were needed. The more the Patriots pressured him, the more Ryan wilted, and it showed in the results.
After the game, Smith tried to put his finger on the source of the problem.
"I don't think it's a mental thing," he said. "I wish I could give you a concrete answer. I can't at this point in time. It's poor execution, and we've got to look at everything down there -- not only in the execution point, but schematically as well.
"I said last week that I'm responsible for how the team plays. We're 1-3, and we've earned it."
One key reason for the Falcons' frustrations was the Patriots' defense, which played exceptionally well at times, and well enough when it was required. Late in the game when the Falcons were engineering a furious comeback off of an onside kick, New England head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia went with the smart play, double- and triple-covering Gonzalez off the line and making it impossible for the tight end to get free. Ryan's last throw came from the New England 10-yard line with 41 seconds left, and it was cornerback Aqib Talib who batted the pass away from White to clinch the victory. This was appropriate, as Talib has played as well as any defender in the NFL this season, and had four interceptions in his last three games -- including the one Ryan threw.
"I get to practice against him every day, so I know what kind of player he is," Brady told NBC's MIchele Tafoya about Talib after the game. "What unbelievable talent -- he brings so much leadership to our team, and it's just been a great treat having him. I hope he plays like this all year; he's a great player."
Another reason for the Pats' strong showing was the rushing attack -- an element to the Falcons' offensive success in years past that was basically ignored by Smith and his coaching staff in this game. The Pats ran 32 times for 132 yards, while Atlanta ran just 15 times for 58 yards, and LeGarrette Blount's 47-yard touchdown jaunt in the third quarter was the backbreaker in many ways.
It was obvious that with starter Steven Jackson out due to injury, Atlanta had no faith in its red-zone rushing, but that left Ryan to try to make things happen near the end zone when New England knew precisely that this was the strategy. Outside of Gonzalez, and with the exception of a few impressive shot plays, no Falcons receiver continuously threatened the Patriots' defense.
"We came here with a mindset to run the football," Blount said. "We came here knowing that we had to be a physical, aggressive team. These guys are a good team -- their record doesn't indicate how good they are. But they're good, and we just came out here and played physically. We took the pressure off our young receivers, and eventually, they made plays."