ATLANTA -- This isn't the bend-but-don't-break defense we're used to. No, there's something special in what the Patriots have been able to accomplish in the first four weeks of the season, capped on Sunday with a 30-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
Here are our takeaways from the Patriots' win:
1. Improved efficiency -- In all the key categories of efficiency, the Patriots showed improvement. They went 7 of 13 on third down and 2 for 3 in the red zone. Sure, you want to see more of an uptick. But again, there's week over week improvement here. They'll be scary good when they start to click.
2. Fantastic defense in the red zone -- If you considered just the raw numbers, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a great game. He threw for 421 yards and two touchdowns. But that doesn't explain why his team only managed 23 points Sunday night. While he was able to find tight end Tony Gonzalez on two TD passes, he couldn't seem to work any of that magic within the Patriots' 20-yard line. The Falcons went 1 for 6 in the red zone, thanks in large part to a Patriots defense that is extremely stingy. After a stunning stop on fourth down with less than a minute remaining, it was obvious that the defense deserved the credit for the win, which frustrated the Falcons to no end.
"We're just not executing like we need to in the red zone," Falcons coach Mike Smith lamented. "We are moving the ball between the 20s, but we're not ending with touchdowns. We've got to score touchdowns in this league."
Smith sounded like the Patriots after a week in which the team had to hear about its 32d ranked red zone efficient offense.
3. Kenbrell Thompkins had a coming-of-age game -- There may never be a perfect outing for Thompkins, who has at least one drop in each of the Patriots' four games. But after Sunday night, you can rest assured he can at least be dependable and, at times, downright exciting to watch. He caught six passes for 127 yards, including a diving 18-yard touchdown grab that proved he can put on the burners for the Patriots when need be. But his most remarkable catch was a 49-yard reception in the second quarter in which he had to come back for an underthrown pass and maneuver around a Falcons defender to make the reception. It was a phenomenal performance.
"I'm just playing football and trusting the older guys to put me in the right spot for the plays that are being called," Thompkins said. "I'm just trying to go out there and make a play for my team."
4. Injury concerns -- Late in the night, news came out that Vince Wilfork has a torn Achilles' tendon, suffered in the first quarter of the game. He was replaced by Joe Vellano, who went on to have a sack. But it's pretty obvious that losing Wilfork is a huge blow to the Patriots on defense, especially considering the high number of snaps Wilfork recorded for the team and the number of players on the current roster who can play the position. Tommy Kelly and Vellano both needed a blow from time to time Sunday, with Chandler Jones sliding over from defensive end and rookie Chris Jones seeing his first extended action. The team will likely have to make a roster move to fill some of Wilfork's snaps, but make no mistake about it, there is no replacing the big guy.
It was also concerning to see the hit on rookie wide receiver Aaron Dobson, who was becoming a key player on third down. He left the game with a neck injury after a gruesome-looking hit that contorted his body. It was a wonder to see him walk off the field on his own.
5. The scent of something special -- This is the first time the Patriots have started a season 4-0 since 2007. It's also the third time the team has done so under coach Bill Belichick. … Belichick is now tied for fifth place in NFL coaching wins with 209. He is 209-109-0, tied with Chuck Noll (209-156-1). …LeGarrette Blount's 49-yard touchdown run was the team's longest since LaMont Jordan's 49-yard TD run against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 14, 2008. It was also the team's longest run since Sammy Morris broke off a 55-harder against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 27, 2009.