ATLANTA — Coca-Cola had a slogan in the early 1990s, “Can’t Beat the Real Thing.” Sunday night in Coca-Cola’s hometown the Patriots looked like the real thing, baby.
This is what we wanted to see, needed to see. The Patriots playing an opponent they weren’t obviously better than. The Patriots’ suddenly dominant defense against an accomplished offense, not one with a rookie quarterback or a deposed one at the controls.
The Patriots kicked the Atlanta Falcons, NFC title game participants a year ago, around the Georgia Dome like an empty soda can before hanging on for what was an unnecessarily harrowing 30-23 victory. The Patriots led, 30-13, with 6:23 to go, but had to stave off a furious Falcons rally to move to 4-0 on the season.
Fittingly, the game was sealed when Aqib Talib, who has morphed into Mel Blount, batted away a fourth-down pass from the 10-yard line from Matt Ryan that was intended for Roddy White in the end zone.
That was the fifth red-zone stop in six chances for the Patriots, who like an overly officious bouncer, refused to allow the Falcons entry into the end zone club.
“I mean, it definitely feels good,” said Talib. “You got the whole league watching us, I mean, whole world watching. Everybody picked us to lose. Y’all guys, everybody picked us to lose. Hey, it don’t get no better than that.”
The performance by the defense was made more impressive for the Patriots after losing indispensable nose tackle Vince Wilfork on the first possession of the game. Wilfork limped off with an ankle injury.
Unlike the Falcons, he didn’t come back.
If you elected to eschew the series finale of “Breaking Bad” and the season premier of “Homeland” in favor of watching the local football outfit you learned that the Patriots’ defense is for real and really good.
No need to look for Andy Warhol, this was no tomato can (royalties to colleague Dan Shaughnessy) exhibit that the Patriots’ defense squashed.
It was an offense that came in ranked ninth in the NFL, had a bona fide franchise quarterback in former Boston College star Ryan, a wide receiver in Julio Jones who led the NFL in both receiving yards (373) and catches (27), and the NFL’s active leader in catches and touchdown receptions in Tony Gonzalez.
If you couldn’t pull yourself away from Walter White or Carrie Mathison and you just look at the statistics, you might come to the erroneous conclusion that the Patriots’ defense didn’t dictate this game.
Ryan was 34 of 54 for 421 yards and two touchdowns. Gonzalez, the ageless tight end, had 12 catches for a career-high 149 yards. Jones, who was manacled most of the night by Talib, ended up with six catches for 108 yards, 49 of them coming on the Falcons’ final possession of the game, when he made a ridiculous catch over Alfonzo Dennard and Devin McCourty to move the ball to the New England 13.
Atlanta was able to move the ball, but the doubted defense clamped down like a vise in the red zone.
The tone was set on the opening drive of the game. Ryan completed his first seven passes for 63 yards to help drive the Falcons to the Patriots’ 5-yard line. But his next two passes were incomplete on second and third and goal, as the Patriots forced the Falcons to settle for a 23-yard field goal from Matt Bryant.
The Patriots’ defense twice stopped the Falcons in the red zone in the first half, benefitting from Ryan airmailing a pass to an open White on fourth and 2 from the New England 7.
The Patriots led, 13-10, after three quarters, a quarter away from a statement-making victory against a formidable foe on the road. On the second play of the fourth quarter, LeGarrette Blount rumbled 47 yards for a touchdown.
Tom Brady was just 5 of 9 for 96 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
He and his cadre of callow receivers got it going in the second half, as Brady finished 20 of 31 for 316 yards with two scores, including a diving 18-yard grab by Kenbrell Thompkins that put the Patriots up, 27-13, with 9:50 to go.
On the first play of the ensuing Atlanta possession, Talib intercepted a deep pass intended for Jones. It was his third straight game with an interception and his fourth pickoff of the season. It was also the 31st consecutive game the Patriots’ defense registered a turnover.
“Aqib has played great for us all year,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Talib’s takeaway set up a 49-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski that gave the Patriots a 30-13 lead with 6:23 left.
At that point it looked like the Patriots could have a Coke, a smile, and an easy statement victory.
“Rise Up” is both the marketing slogan and the rallying cry that the Falcons use.
It was the Patriots’ defense that was forced to rise up twice in the fourth quarter to protect what looked like a certain victory.
The first time came after a botched onside kick recovery by rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld gave the ball back to the Falcons at their 48 down 10 with 4:22 to go. Atlanta advanced to the New England 7, but the defense forced a short field goal.
The Patriots recovered the next Atlanta onside kick, but Brady fumbled on fourth and 1 from the Atlanta 37, giving the ball back to the Falcons with 1:50 to go. But the defense dug in its heels to avoid a monumental collapse.
After years of the defense relying on Brady, the tables have been turned, balance has been restored.
The defense is the real thing with no artificial ingredients to its success.