Foxborough, Mass. – A young team was exposed by the smartest and saltiest bunch in the NFL. If you looked hard, you could have seen it coming. Thomas Dimitroff, who built this young team, looked hard and did.
“We said this would be a benchmark for our organization,” said Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons’ general manager but once New England’s chief scout. “And the reality is that we still have a lot of work to do. And I knew — I knew — that [the Patriots get] agitated when it’s suggested they’re losing something. I knew they would play physically and come out with all guns blazing.”
To use the Dimitroff buzzword of 2009, the Pats played with urgency. They’d rushed for a total of 156 yards in the season’s first two games; they ran for 168 Sunday. They kept possession for nearly 40 minutes. “They ball-hogged the ball,” receiver Roddy White would say later, and in so doing the Pats hogtied the Falcons.
The Pats weren’t precise — the great Tom Brady missed more open receivers in one game than he used to miss in a full season — but they were persistent. The Falcons hung around and seemed about to seize the lead in both the second and third quarters, but Michael Turner fumbled and Michael Jenkins was flagged for offensive interference in the end zone (the right call, by the way) and the Falcons didn’t score over the final 38 minutes and 48 seconds.
And you’re not going beat New England, which has been the NFL’s best team over the past eight seasons, that way. And that’s what showed Sunday. One team knew what winning such a game entailed. The other was still guessing.
“They did a good job out-executing us,” safety Erik Coleman said. “They did a good job running the ball.”
That part was a surprise, only it wasn’t. Bill Belichick didn’t become the hooded Beelzebub by doing the same thing every week, and his Patriots didn’t try to outscore the visitors 40-37. He tempo’ed the game, as they say in college basketball, and the Falcons’ offense wound up sitting so long it never got a feel for anything. Case study: Tony Gonzalez caught one pass.
“They played keep-away,” said White, who caught four passes but dropped two others. “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
The Pats are smart enough and seasoned enough to win any which way. The Falcons still have to stick to script. That’s a function of age, or the lack thereof. The Pats brought a championship intensity to Week 3 of the regular season. The Falcons don’t know what championship intensity is because, to be blunt, they haven’t won anything yet.
But that isn’t to say they won’t. This is a good young team that, with a few tweaks, will get better as it goes. There’s reason to believe the rookie pass rusher Lawrence Sidbury needs to be worked into the rotation — the Falcons had one sack against Carolina last week and none against New England — and the absence of tackle Peria Jerry was deeply felt Sunday.
But the secondary wasn’t completely undressed by Brady and Randy Moss, and that’s something. Indeed, this rainy day needn’t be viewed as a washout. The Falcons were beaten but not routed, not nearly embarrassed.
Said Mike Smith, the coach: “We’ll learn a lot from this.”
Said Mike Peterson, the linebacker: “It may not show right now, and people may not understand it yet, but this is going to help us down the road.”
There will be bigger games for these Falcons. And when one arrives, Smith or Peterson will be able to say, “Remember how the Patriots did it to us? That’s what we need to do.”