On Pro Football
FOXBORO - The numbers: 17, 16 and 10.
A New England Patriots defense, considered suspect at best and flat-out trashed in more than a few circles, can strut a little bit on the way to work this morning.
Those numbers — points allowed defensively in the three games to date — sparkle. And there's no qualifying tag with this one. This wasn't "only the Jets" or "only the Bills."
The Patriots stifled one of the most lethal attacks in the game, the previously unbeaten Atlanta Falcons, 26-10 in the mist at Gillette Stadium yesterday.
"Total team effort," exclaimed cornerback Terrence Wheatley, part of a secondary that held gunslinger Matt Ryan to 199 passing yards. "We didn't blow any coverages. We played physical. We played hard and just did our assignments. That's what you get when you play smart football."
First and foremost, the Patriots defense, instead of buckling or bending when it mattered, did its job and got Tom Brady back on the field. Atlanta converted only 2 of 9 third-down tries.
That, as much as Fred Taylor's 105-yard rushing day, allowed New England to dominate the time of possession, 39:49-20:11, and keep Ryan where he can't administer any pain - on the sidelines.
For the first time this year, New England didn't bend.
Maybe there are players out there, and we just don't know it.
For starters, the defensive front again played monstrous football. That's three weeks straight now.
Sure, Richard Seymour might have been an upgrade, but who can notice with this front stepping up?
They didn't hit Ryan, who rolled out much of the day, but they eliminated Michael Turner (15 carries, 57 yards) forcing the Falcons into an uncomfortable one-dimensional position.
"Up front they handled the run game," said safety Brandon McGowan, the biggest of heroes on the defensive side. "When you know what a team is running ... it's hard to just pass with us knowing you're not going to run the ball. You can just lock those guys up."
McGowan, of course, forced the late second quarter Michael Turner fumble with a laser shot to the midsection.
"My teammates held them guys up at the line, and gave me a free shot to hit the running back, and that's what I did," said McGowan, a journeyman through his previous four NFL seasons.
The UMaine product, with one kill shot, may have forged an identity for this defense, or at least the foundation of one.
The folks in the opposing locker room — a room that seriously resembled the Revolution room after a nil-nil tie with D.C. United more than the room of a team that had just been smothered — weren't outwardly so impressed.
"Guys were getting open," said tight end Tony Gonzalez. "I thought we were clicking today. We were going in the right direction until we had that turnover. It cost us a bit, and then that questionable call down in the end zone. The game was going the way we wanted it to go."
Something happened to bog down the Falcons, though.
"We made some mistakes, the fumble and penalties cost us," agreed receiver Brian Finneran. "I think the offensive pass interference on Michael Jenkins, on the touchdown play, momentum shifted. Before you knew it, we were punting the ball, giving it right back to them."
Finneran, a veteran of nine NFL seasons, even went on to dole out the token compliment.
"Everybody in this league can play, it's just a matter how hard they want to go out there and do it," he added. "They played hard today."
Did he mention they get paid to play too?
Regardless, a unit — which struck fear in the hearts of New England football fans even before Richard Seymour was vanished and Jerod Mayo crumpled to the turf — will be ranked in the NFL's top 10 for just about every meaningful statistical category this morning.
How long it lasts, we'll all see. But for now, the Patriots defense can afford to feel pretty darn good about itself.