Randy Moss jaws with Falcons LB Mike Peterson after a third-quarter grab. (Jim Davis / Globe Staff)
FOXBOROUGH -- The numbers don't befit a receiver with a bad back. But maybe that simply makes Randy Moss's performance against the Falcons Sunday all the more impressive.
Moss, who cropped up on the Patriots' injury report with that balky back Friday after sitting out that day's practice session, didn't just suit up for Sunday's game, but reeled in a game-high 10 catches for 116 yards.
For Moss it was the 61st 100-yard receiving game of his career (2d in NFL history behind Jerry Rice) and 15th with the Patriots. The Patriots' record in those 15 games? A perfect 15-0.
But Moss's impact on this game began long before he even caught a pass. On a day where Wes Welker was again sidelined with a mystery knee ailment, Moss became all that much more important to an offense that dressed just four wide receivers, including special teams ace Sam Aiken.
Just putting on the uniform inspired his teammates.
"It was huge, just from a confidence standpoint, for us to have one of our big guns out there," said Patriots tight end Chris Baker. "Obviously, he's a great player, but he came out here and sucked it up for us."
What was hidden by the stat sheet, was painfully apparent on the field. Early in the game, during a television timeout, Aiken was spotted lifting Moss up, trying to help him stretch out that achy back.
But it was the Falcons' defense that Moss really stretched out. The Patriots utilized him in a bevy of routes, from the underneath, Welker-like routes that helped him pile up the yardage, to some deep shots down the field.
"He ran a lot of routes, so I'm sure he's going to be tired tonight," joked quarterback Tom Brady, who seemingly looked towards Moss whenever he had no other option. After all, no one knows better the value of Moss, who appeared in all but one offensive snap over the first two weeks of the season.
"He played great," said Brady. "He made some big catches for us... He's a great player and we've got to get him involved in the game, more so even than last week. I think we made a concerted effort to get him the ball and he always comes up big for us."
While giving the Jets all the credit following their victory last week in New Jersey, Moss shrugged off the notion that he had been shut down by cornerback Darrelle Revis. He noted Revis often had help over the top and that even Moss could play quality defense if he had the likes of Brandon Meriweather at safety.
The Falcons challenged Moss with single coverage and the Patriots made them pay.
"He got a lot of single coverage and did a good job," said Belichick. "He ran a lot of different routes. We threw deep, we threw inside, we threw outside, we threw some quick passes to him. I think he did a good job attacking the coverage, the corners and even some of the split-safety coverage, working on the safeties. We hit some, we didn't hit some. He's a tough guy to cover. We try to design and create situations where he had an opportunity and a little bit of space to work.
"He sure made a lot of plays today."
Falcons defensive back Brian Williams noted the visitors didn't give Moss much deep. To be sure, Williams made a nice play to prevent a touchdown on a deep post route down the middle of the field in the second quarter.
But the Falcons had no real answer away from the deep ball. Like on a 4th and 3 situation late in the third quarter, where Brady simply lofted the ball to Moss along the Patriots' sideline for a 21-yard completion and a new set of downs. A few moments earlier Moss had reeled in a third-down grab while falling out of bounds to move the chains).
Brady and Moss made it all look so simple.
"He made some amazing catches out there and he does it all the time," said Baker. "That's why he is who he is, a Hall of Fame receiver. He made some big plays out there, and he's a big reason why we won today."
Through three games, Moss is off to the best start of his career. His 26 receptions are tops in the NFL and easily better than the 22 catches he made through three games at the start of his record-shattering 2007 season.
Moss, who often speaks following games, dressed quickly and ran an out for his final route of the day. As reporters tailed him like beaten defensive backs, Moss made a sharp left before entering the postgame press conference area and departed for the night. We'll never know exactly how bad his back was hurting him today.
But his play spoke for itself.