Patriots 31, Falcons 28
The two-time defending Super Bowl champions had just blown a 15-point lead to an Atlanta Falcons team playing without star quarterback Michael Vick, but New England Patriots place kicker Adam Vinatieri stood on the sideline Sunday at the Georgia Dome, confident that quarterback Tom Brady would give him a chance to win the game at the end.
"It just seems like he does it every time," Vinatieri said. "Maybe he doesn't do it every time, but it sure seems like he does. When there's a few minutes left and we've got a couple of timeouts, I know he's going to give me the chance."
Against the Falcons, who rallied from a 28-13 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the score, the Patriots had 3 minutes 52 seconds and one timeout left to drive into field goal range. That was more than enough time for Brady, who routinely turns the two-minute drill into 120 seconds of agony for defenses.
Brady didn't have to do much this time, however, as a 30-yard pass interference penalty against the Falcons moved the Patriots across midfield. After Brady threw a nine-yard pass to Deion Branch on third down and four, backup tailback Patrick Pass ran 15 yards to the Falcons 14. Four plays later, Vinatieri made a 29-yard field goal with 17 seconds remaining to give the Patriots a 31-28 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 71,079.
It was the 19th time Vinatieri kicked a game-winning field goal in the final minute of regulation or during overtime, and the 19th time Brady directed a scoring drive to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
"Whenever we go out there at the end with Tom, we know we've got a chance to get in field goal range," Patriots tight end Ben Watson said. "And Adam doesn't miss many."
The Patriots' game-winning drive started ominously, as they were penalized five yards because of Watson's false start, and then a 16-yard pass to Branch was nullified by a holding call against guard Stephen Neal. So on first and 20 from the Patriots 26, after the Falcons gave back five yards by being offside, Brady threw down the right sideline for Branch.
Brady's pass was a little bit underthrown, but nickel back Allen Rossum came running across the field and hit Branch before the football arrived. Rossum was penalized 30 yards for pass interference, giving the Patriots a first down at the Atlanta 44. That was the only break Brady needed to put Vinatieri in position to kick the game-winning field goal.
"I think that's all this offense can ask for coming into a tough atmosphere like this," said Brady, who completed 22 of 27 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. "Having a chance to win the game with three minutes left is all we can ask for."
The Patriots' late heroics overshadowed another sluggish performance, as they allowed 400 yards of offense, including 298 yards and three touchdowns by Atlanta quarterback Matt Schaub, the former University of Virginia star who completed 18 of 34 passes. His 14-yard touchdown pass to Dez White and two-point conversion pass to Brian Finneran tied the score at 28 with 3:52 left.
"Anytime Michael Vick's not in the game, you're not going to be upset," Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. "But that kid's got a strong and accurate arm."
Vick was inactive for the game after spraining his right medial collateral ligament in last week's 30-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Even though the former Virginia Tech all-American didn't practice all week, he was listed by the Falcons as probable to play against the Patriots until Saturday night, when he was downgraded to questionable.
"He wasn't ready to play," Falcons Coach Jim Mora said. "He simply wasn't healthy enough to go out and play today. It was an easy decision."
Schaub rallied the Falcons from an early 14-0 deficit, throwing a 53-yard pass to Finneran on the first play of the second quarter to move to the Patriots 6. Schaub threw a two-yard touchdown pass to fullback Justin Griffith to cut New England's lead to 14-7 with 13:24 left in the first half.
The Falcons got the ball back with about nine minutes left in the half, and Schaub drove them 81 yards on 17 plays, taking nearly eight minutes off the clock before Todd Peterson kicked a 33-yard field goal to cut the Patriots' lead to 14-10.
The Patriots were then forced to punt, and the Falcons took over at their 25 with 45 seconds left in the second quarter. Schaub completed a pair of passes to Finneran, and then rookie punter Michael Koenen kicked a 58-yard field goal, the second longest in Falcons history, to make it 14-13 at halftime.
But whatever momentum the Falcons gained in the final minutes of the first half was quickly erased by Brady at the start of the second. He threw a 45-yard pass to tight end Daniel Graham on the first play from scrimmage, and then threw down the right seam again for Watson, who scored on a 33-yard catch to make it 21-13.
Brady completed his first 10 passes of the second half, including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Bethel Johnson that made it 28-13.