AFTER three wins over what are thought to be inferior foes, only time will tell how good a victory the Patriots' 30-23 triumph over the Falcons on Sunday night really was. With the defeat, Atlanta dropped to 1-3 on the young season, and something seems to be missing from the squad that finished last year with the NFC's best record. If they never find it, and the season becomes a struggle, having beat the Falcons won't seem like a such a notch on the belt of these Patriots as it does today.
But, then again, by the time that determination would be made, it might be irrelevant. By then the Patriots might not need any such validation. Because by then there may be no question that New England belongs among the league's best.
They're not there yet — consideration for the level of competition and the flaws that have been exposed in these early weeks combining to trump the impressiveness of a 4-0 record and rank among the five NFL teams still unbeaten through the first quarter of the season. Rarely more apparent than when they almost gave away a 17-point lead with six minutes to play by botching an onside kick and fumbling a snap on fourth-and-short, the Patriots are still very much a work in progress.
But progress is indeed being made. And being made in ways that bode well for what this team could become.
The young players are beginning to figure out the finer points of life in pro football, as evidenced Sunday night by the contributions coming from the Pats' sizable class of rookies. Most impressive was the star turn receiver Kenbrell Thompkins took en route to six catches for 127 yards and a spectacular touchdown, though there were several others that shouldn't be overlooked. Jamie Collins, the team's first draft pick in April, did good work alongside captain Jerod Mayo in jamming tight end Tony Gonzalez on the red zone stand that saved the game in the final seconds. Cornerback Logan Ryan, their next selection in the draft, was assigned to cover superstar receiver Julio Jones on the Falcons' play from the Patriots' 7 yard line.
And when Vince Wilfork went down with a season-ending tear of his Achilles heel on the game's opening series, undrafted rookie Joe Vellano stepped into his spot along the defensive front, played well, and registered a 13-yard sack. New England's other sack came from a rookie, too, courtesy of Michael Buchanan.
Meanwhile, second-year players Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Alfonzo Dennard have all continued to emerge as major factors for the defense, and it appears as though the Patriots' coaches on both sides of the scrimmage line have started to figure out how to get the best out of that talent as they become more familiar with the players.
New England's coordinators orchestrated an excellent game plan for Sunday, and the players executed. Josh McDaniels used a run-heavy first half (Tom Brady was just 5-for-9 before intermission) to set up things up for the passing game later (Brady threw for 220 yards after the break), while Matt Patricia's defense kept the Falcons to 27 yards or less on five of six series over the middle of the game. The Atlanta running game (58 yards) was virtually nonexistent all night, and Matt Ryan wound up with 421 yards passing, yes, but 182 of that came after the Pats went ahead 30-13 with 6:18 remaining.
The Pats let the Falcons back into the game at that point, but still the night's entire body of work presents the best evidence yet that things are starting to come together in every area for Bill Belichick's team — despite dealing with plenty of injuries and inexperience.
"I think the most important thing for our team is to continue to improve," Belichick said Monday. "We're not where we need to be as a team. We're making progress. We're certainly doing some things better than we did four games ago, or a month ago, but still a lot of things we can improve on, a lot of areas that we need to work in. That's the next step."
It's a next step they'll take without Wilfork, and that's a big loss. His size, strength and consistency keys a lot of what the Patriots do up front, and he won't be easy to replace. Vellano and Tommy Kelly will likely both see their responsibilities increase, and there will obviously be a new body brought in to help, too.
That addition could be as simple as elevating Marcus Forston or A.J. Francis from the practice squad. It could be revisiting an old friend who left on not-so-good terms, such as Richard Seymour or Kyle Love. It could be another player off the street. Or it could be made via trade. Whatever they do, and whoever they find, he'll either need to make an impact or the defense will need to change some of its fundamentals. Wilfork is that much a cornerstone of the foundation.
But, then again, he played only 10 snaps Sunday night. The Pats pressured Ryan on each of the first two plays after he left, forcing throwaways, and making the Falcons settle for a field goal. Including those, New England subsequently surrendered 200 yards from scrimmage on their first 50 snaps without Wilfork, that average of 4.0 yards per play essentially rendering Atlanta equivalent to the second-least efficient offense in the NFL.
It's silly to think that's sustainable, and sillier to think the Pats won't miss Wilfork — but they can survive his absence by continuing along the same road they've traveled the past couple of weeks. Belichick structures his system with the goal of his team getting better as the season drags on, which is why they've lost just one second-half game in the last three years, and which is partially why both of the previous seasons that started 4-0 under Belichick ended in the Super Bowl.
The first resulted in a 14-2 regular season, the second a 16-0 campaign, so to have that sort of head start again is a terrific sign, particularly after getting there with a victory like Sunday's.
A victory that looks impressive now — but could ultimately be looked back upon as the night New England began to realize what could become of this season.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.