1. Joe Vellano — His sack, beating the center cleanly with a high-school swim move late in the third, ended the Falcons’ attempted answer after the Pats had taken a 13-10 lead. It also turned a comfortable Matt Ryan into a melting mess, like the first girl to show up in a room full of boys at a middle school party. Ryan was never the same.
2. Aqib Talib — Give Bill Belichick credit, he put safeties over the top on all three big targets and let Talib do his thing. Talib spent his night hanging all over whoever was in front of him -- Roddy White or Julio Jones. He was so physical, both Falcons quit for much of the night. Added his fourth pick and was on the breakup on the final play.
3. Kenbrell Thompkins — Look, Atlanta followed the same defensive game plan that Tampa did, rushing nobody and allowing the Pats to wait all night to get open. Still, it was a legit effort by a rookie free agent like Thompkins. Finished with 6 catches for 127 yards and 1 TD.
1. Jamie Collins/Dont’a Hightower — Matt Patricia continues to put these guys in coverage with depressing results. Couldn’t handle Tony Gonzalez or Jacquizz Rodgers.
2. Tom Brady — How do you fumble again in the final minutes on 4th-and-an-inch? I blame you not Ryan Wendell.
3. Zach Sudfeld — Catch the onside kick and salt the game away, kid.
GRADING THE GROUPS
Line (A) ... Tom Brady had all night to throw it, and the running backs averaged 5.2 yards a carry. On the road, that’s stupendous.
Running Backs (A) ... LeGarrette Blount’s TD was an absolute back-breaker. The trio all ran hard and ran downhill. Combined for 26 carries and 134 yards.
Wide Receivers (A) ... Julian Edelman continued to his run as a legit AFC Offensive Salutatorian, playing second fiddle to Peyton Manning’s Valedictorian. Edelman caught seven passes for 118 yards, and he was the second-best Pats receiver on the field. Kenbrell Thompkins enjoyed a dream night on a national stage.
Tight Ends (B-) ... Matt Mulligan catches a TD, a nice story. And Michael Hoomanawanui recovers a critical onside kick.
Quarterback (B+) ... Loses the “A” with the fumbled late snap. The guy is working with so little and doing so much.
Line (A) ... The injury to Vince Wilfork will be a problem down the road, but these guys dominated the line of scrimmage. They made Matt Ryan uncomfortable. This is where numbers lie. The Pats were tougher, although if Atlanta really tried to run the football things might have been different. They made Matt Ryan flip the panic button. And that was job one this week.
Linebackers (A) ... There are states where what the Pats linebackers did to Tony Gonzalez in coverage could be considered a Class B felony. But hey, if the officials are going to let you grab receivers as they run up the field every time, grab away. Forget the tackling numbers this week. Bottom line is Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins took the Falcons out of their game, on the road. Mission accomplished.
Secondary (A) ... Aqib Talib’s best game. The safeties were called on to split the field in deep halves and were always there on the spot, either to make a sure tackle or to break up a play. Superb tackling. Alfonzo Dennard had lots of help, but that was fine. Tough night for Kyle Arrington. It didn’t matter.
WHY BELICHICK’S BETTER
Might have to retire this section. It’s growing tiresome.
1. The Pats never celebrate a defensive play on second down. Did you watch Desmond Truffant and the Falcons party on after a second-down stop, only to be humiliated by Tom Brady on third? It happened at least a half-dozen times. Never happens in New England.
Third down is the down. The Pats know it. Bad defenses don’t.
2. New England’s defensive penalties rarely matter. Atlanta handed the Pats XX first downs via penalty last night. Always happens.
3. When is the last time on a huge fourth down, the Pats rolled Tom Brady to his left and made him throw across his body? Yep, happened last night. Now, Matt Ryan is a pro. He’s supposed to hit a wide-open Roddy White for the two yards — not miss him by 12 yards — but it’s all about putting players into positions to make plays. Mike Smith simply wouldn’t know.
THANK YOU, MIKE SMITH
On the biggest sequence of the night, a night of head-scratchers from Atlanta coach Mike Smith, I give you Patriots facing third-and-19 from inside their own 15 early in the fourth quarter. His team is jacked up, looking to attack and Smith’s defensive coordinator Mike Nolan — another rocket scientist of a coach — calls to rush three and drop eight guys into a cushy zone coverage. Tom Brady, never threatened, takes 4.4 seconds in the pocket, to wait for Kenbrell Thompkins to finally work to a WIDE-OPEN spot of the field — 25 yards down field. He makes the catch and the officials tack on an extra 15 yards for a penalty.
Brady could have taken longer, but there was no easier layup that could have been available.
As I said, there were head-scratchers all night from Smith.
Why did he go for it on fourth-and-2 early, eschewing an easy field goal?
Why is he calling panic timeouts with 1:10 left in the second quarter, basically saving time for New England?
Why in the fourth quarter, down two scores, did his team start huddling after going no-huddle basically all night?
The answer is because, like his quarterback, Smith is nowhere near ready for prime time.
By the way, can Cris Collinsworth stop talking about how great the Falcons are on penalties?
Smith is an awful head coach, and his teams commit stupid penalties at huge times. Last night, there were 6 for 55 yards, three which were good for New England Patriots first downs.
Matt Ryan was as mediocre as possible in one of the biggest regular season games he’ll ever play.
Sorry, BC fans.
Fraudulent. As predicted.
A botched onside kick, a fumbled snap and a prayer answered by Julio Jones put Ryan, on a dreadful night, in a chance to come back and tie.
With first-and-10, from the Pats’ 14, Ryan missed an open Harry Douglas, threw the only place Tony Gonzalez couldn’t catch it on second down, made a useless checkdown for a three-yard gain third down, then threw an uncatchable ball, out of the reach of a banged-up Roddy White.
I can think of 100s of better ways the Falcons could have spent $103.5 million, especially looking at a sorry defense like they have.