The questions about the New England Patriots offense that have haunted the unit all season are, if not completely put to bed by their performance against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night, surely finding it increasingly difficult to keep their eyes from closing. In scoring 30 points en route to a 30-23 victory, the Patriots showed that the offense can survive without tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola; also, it helped that the Falcons have been one of the least stingy defenses against the pass this season, per Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA statistics.
However, even though the Patriots offense looked exponentially more impressive in Sunday night's contest, the unit still alternated between efficient drives and lackluster ones. Additionally, the Patriots were not able to finish long drives or capitalize on some of the big plays they had in others.
After a disappointing first possession of the game that saw them move the ball only 24 yards in 5 plays before punting, it looked like it would be anemic business as usual, at least in terms of this season. Then the Patriots had a much more successful drive on the second possession of the game that began in the first quarter and continued into the second.
On this drive, the Patriots started on their own 25-yard line and gained 75 yards in 12 plays for a touchdown, with 74 of the 75 yards gained by the Patriots' capable stable of running backs. Brady's one-yard touchdown pass to Matthew Mulligan was the only yard gained that did not directly involve a running back.
When the Patriots did try to feature the pass on the third drive of the first half, the offense sputtered. No doubt the field position of the third drive did not help either as the Patriots offense took over possession on their own eight-yard line after the Falcons turned it over on downs. Yet, the first three plays of the drive where the Patriots gained 60 yards on three plays, 56 yards on two passes to wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and a four-yard run by running back LeGarrette Blount, seemed to indicate the Patriots might be able to overcome the poor field position and score anyway.
Alas, that was not the case as the Patriots gained just two yards over the next three plays with the drive stalling out at the Falcons' thirty-yard line. It took a 48-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski for the team to get anything out of what looked at the beginning like it would be a promising offensive possession.
The third quarter also saw a drive where the Patriots got big chunks of yardage, but were unable to finish the drive and end with a touchdown. Taking over on their seven-yard line after a Falcons punt, the Patriots proceeded to gain 89 net yards in 14 plays to take the ball all the way down to the Falcons' four-yard line. On the drive, Tom Brady completed five of nine passes for 82 yards, almost equaling his first-half passing statistics, but with two of his four completions coming on second and third down in the red zone, the Patriots had to settle for a 22-yard field goal.
Getting big plays, but not getting touchdowns was a problem the Patriots did solve in the fourth quarter, starting with Blount's 47-yard touchdown run that gave the Patriots a 20-10 lead. The Patriots then built upon that lead with an even more impressive drive in their next turn with the ball. On the following possession, the team rode completions of 16 yards, 44 yards, and 18 yards, mixed in with an ineffective two-yard run by Stevan Ridley, to score a touchdown and go up 27-10.
The Patriots offense would go on to add another field goal after the defense set them up with great field position; cornerback Aqib Talib intercepted a Matt Ryan pass, giving the Patriots the ball on their own 41-yard line. Unfortunately, the drive was mostly forgettable as the Patriots only mustered 28 net yards on 6 plays before Gostkowski kicked a 49-yard field goal.
Hitting on so many big plays resulted in a big game for Tom Brady and two of his wide receivers. Brady finished the night having completed 20 of his 31 pass attempts for 316 yards and two touchdowns, easily his best performance of the season; Brady also avoided taking any sacks. His 10.2 yards per pass attempt could not have happened without the equally stellar play of wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Julian Edelman. Thompkins caught six of the 11 passes thrown his way for 127 yards while Edelman made even more of his pass targets by catching seven of the nine passes directed to him and gaining 118 yards.
With the big plays of the offense being so noteworthy because of the myriad ways in which the unit struggled in the first three contests of the season, it can be easy to overlook the Patriots defense that did such a masterful job of holding the Falcons offense in check, even without stalwart Vince Wilfork, who left the game due to a torn Achilles tendon in his right foot.
The Falcons' average of 6.4 yards per play for the contest might have created the illusion that the Patriots defense was susceptible, but when it came time to make the biggest plays, when the Falcons got down into the red zone, the defense was ready throughout the game. Of the six trips the Falcons had to the red zone, the Patriots only allowed their opponent to walk away with a total of 16 points. Taking away so many potential points from the Falcons kept the Patriots defense from ruining what the Patriots defense was accomplishing.
The final margin of victory for the Patriots was not staggering as they did not blowout the Falcons, but it was still their most complete victory of the season with both the offense and the defense contributing almost equally. It also kept the Patriots undefeated and atop the AFC East division race and showed they are no longer a team that is just going to survive through contests; now they can go out and win them.