The Number 9 Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2013 almost gave me a heart attack all over again as I was revisiting it, even though it's several months later and I already know the outcome. But still, it's very easy to forget just how unbelievably nerve-wracking this season was, and that I'm still alive after all this bodes well for my overall health. My hands are still shaking a bit, so I may as well just get right to it.
The list so far:
20. The New England Patriots sign Tim Tebow.
19. Aaron Dobson and Aqib Talib help the Patriots lock up a sloppy home opener against the New York Jets.
18. Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez depart for Denver and jail, respectively.
17. Michael Hoomanawanui makes a huge one-handed TD grab just before halftime against the Miami Dolphins.
16. The Patriots lose in OT to the Jets, courtesy of an interesting new rule
15. James Develin bowls over the entire Texans defensive line for a rushing touchdown.
14. Tom Brady leads a 4th quarter comeback drive against the Bills to win the 2013 season opener.
13. Kenbrell Thompkins emerges as a receiving threat with a two touchdown day against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
12. A highly questionable non-PI call costs the Patriots a Monday Night Football game against the Carolina Panthers.
11. Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole team up for a volleyball-style interception against the Miami Dolphins.
10. New England engineers a huge second half comeback against the Miami Dolphins.
And now, the Number 9 Most Memorable Patriots Moment of 2013.
9. Aqib Talib shuts down Julio Jones and Roddy White in a primetime matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
When the 2013 schedule first came out and experts and fans alike tried to predict how New England would fare in the regular season, more than a few individuals (myself included) had a week 4 trip to Atlanta to play the Falcons on Sunday Night Football marked down as a loss. The Falcons had finished their 2012 campaign with a 13-3 record, the #1 seed in the NFC, and had just barely missed out on a trip to the Super Bowl on some defensive heroics from the San Francisco 49ers. Their core unit was returning this year, and Atlanta looked to be one of the teams to beat in the NFL. So it isn't surprising that this matchup represented the first real test for the team in 2013. Although the Patriots were 3-0, they had done little to inspire any confidence in anyone, particularly on offense; a last second comeback against Buffalo, a sloppy home win against the Jets, and a 23-3 victory against an anemic Buccaneers team certainly wasn't a recipe for success. So even though the Falcons were 1-2, their losses had come under much different circumstances and this primetime home game against the Patriots seemed to be the perfect opportunity to right the ship.
What Atlanta didn't count on, however, was cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib had been playing absolutely lights out so far in 2013. He had already recorded three interceptions on the year, was all over the ball, and seemed to be coming into his own as a legit shutdown corner. However, Talib had yet to match up against a truly elite receiver, and with Atlanta boasting not only Julio Jones, but Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, this game represented his biggest test yet.
And as it turned out, it was a test he passed with flying colors.
Talib started out the day on Jones in blanket coverage. New England decided to play the Falcons with a mix of man and zone, relying on their suddenly stellar pass rush to pressure Matt Ryan and ensure that nobody would have to cover for too long. The strategy seemed to be working well, as the Patriots were able to hold Atlanta to just a field goal in the first quarter. However, Atlanta's very first drive - and the very first drive of that game - saw Vince Wilfork blow out his Achilles Tendon, an injury that would cost him the rest of the season and set into effect a rash of injuries to key starters unlike any in the NFL that year. Losing Wilfork was huge, as it left a hole in the middle and forced the Patriots to use their linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage in order to make up for Wilfork's absence. What resulted was a career day for Gonzalez, who hauled in 149 yards and two touchdowns on 12 receptions.
Perhaps another reason why Tony G had such a huge day was because Ryan simply couldn't get Julio Jones the ball, as Talib was all over him. Jones finished out the first half with two completions for six yards. It's worth noting that in the two weeks prior, against Miami and St. Louis, Jones hauled in 20 receptions for 297 yards and a touchdown, so it isn't like Ryan and Jones were having trouble getting in sync. Talib was just in his back pocket all game.
New England was still a little slow to start on offense, but managed 10 first half points to go into the locker room tied at 10 for the start of the third quarter. Those offensive struggles would continue into the third, which became something of a theme for the Patriots all season as they came out of the gate extremely slow in the second half. Luckily, the D continued to hold, led by Talib and his complete stonewalling of Jones. New England entered into the final quarter up 13-10.
On the 3rd play of the quarter, a 1st and 10 at the Atlanta 47 that came off of a DPI call against Kenbrell Thompkins, LeGarrette Blount put his long-term speed on display for the first time in 2013 with a 47 yard touchdown run that put the Pats up 20-10. Atlanta would answer back with a field goal to cut the lead to one score, but Tommy B marched right back down the field on the ensuing possession with a 5 play, 80 yard drive that ended with a beautiful diving catch in the end zone by Thompkins (Thompkins had himself a helluva day, not only coming up with huge receptions when they were needed most, but drawing some key penalties as well. He finished the day with six catches for 127 yards and a TD, and if this was a list of the Top 21 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2013, his game would have made it. Honorable Mention!). With New England now up 27-13 with less than 10 minutes to play, it was time for Atlanta to score quickly.
After a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, Atlanta came out on 1st and 10 in a 3 WR set with Jason Snelling in the backfield. A quick playaction, and Ryan didn't hesitate to take a shot down the right sideline. And while he didn't get to completely set his feet, as Rob Ninkovich came in off of a nice move and got in Ryan's face, he was still able to get enough behind the ball for Jones to do his thing and go up and get it. Talib, however, had read the Go Route and was running with Jones step for step. He positioned himself in front of the receiver and made the interception. New England would score three on the drive to go up 30-13.
Tony Gonzalez, as he has throughout his Hall of Fame career, stepped up when he was needed most, and almost single-handedly got the Falcons back in the end zone to pull the lead to 10. Atlanta would then attempt, and recover, an onside kick, courtesy of preseason stud turned regular season dud Zach Sudfeld's inability to hang onto a ball that came right to him. Atlanta would then drive down to the New England 7, but couldn't punch it in and had to settle for a field goal. Patriots 30, Falcons 23.
New England, looking to just run out some clock after recovering the next onside kick, took to the ground. Stevan Ridley picked up 8 on the first carry of the drive, then a Tommy B QB sneak picked up another yard. A handoff to Blount on 3rd and 1 appeared to have just enough to move the chains, yet somehow he was ruled short. New England decided to go for it on 4th and 1 but - in what also became something of a theme in New England - Brady fumbled the snap and Atlanta recovered at their own 38.
Atlanta's next play was a 49 yard bomb to Julio Jones, who was now able to get open with Talib moving over to help jam Gonzalez at the line (a strategy that worked to perfection) and to keep an eye on Roddy White. Atlanta found themselves with a 1st and 10 at the New England 13 with over a full minute to play. Plenty of time to get the score.
Ryan's first two attempts sailed incomplete, attempts to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez. His third down throw found Jacquizz Rodgers over the middle, but he was only able to gain three yards. 4th and 7 at the New England 10. One play to tie or lose the game.
The Falcons came out in shotgun with Gonzalez alone on the right side and Jones, White, and Douglas lined up on the left. New England rushed four, put linebackers Hightower and Collins on Gonzalez with the sole intention of completely stuffing him and not giving him room to breathe, put Dennard on Jones with McCourty over the top, Arrington on Douglas, and Talib on White. Gonzalez was completely unable to get off the line as Jones ran a post to the left corner. Douglas performed a quick button hook that saw him open, but short of the first down. What Douglas's run did do, however, was freeze Steve Gregory for long enough for White to make a break across the field and towards the end zone, with Talib in hot pursuit. As White was Ryan's best option,he launched a pass his way, which Talib beautifully broke up to win the game. A Tommy B kneeldown or two, and the Pats move to 4-0.
Writing that article made me realize that I could have highlighted any number of plays from this game alone and it would have been worthy of this list. Blount's run. Julian Edelman's day. Belichick's strategy to jam Gonzalez. The way the D line stepped up in absence of Wilfork. Thompkins's performance (which I already mentioned). But I'm still giving the nod to Talib here for two main reasons. One, and most importantly, Talib was an absolute animal in this game, rendering one of the best receivers in the league useless whenever he was on him. Although Jones would finish with 108 yards on six receptions, 50 of those yards came on that one pass, a massive hurl down the sidelines that he reeled in with Devin McCourty in coverage. Another of his receptions was a 16 yard completion with Jerod Mayo in zone. At the end of the day, Jones wasn't really even a factor at all until the 4th quarter, and every time he was a factor, Talib was elsewhere on the field. That's a performance worthy of this list. And two, it was the moment that, in my opinion, that Talib really came out as a true number one corner, something that had been missing in New England for a very, very long time. To couple that joyous realization with a huge win, on the road, against a Falcons team that was almost unbeatable at home, puts this game solidly at Number 9. Sure, Atlanta went on to tank all season and was the first team eliminated from the 2013 playoffs, but nobody knew that at the time.
Watch game highlights - highlights which include a great segment of Julio Jones being rendered ineffective - here. It's funny to hear Michael Irvin commenting on how double teams were the main cause of Jones's lackluster night, when the only two people on screen at any given moment are Talib and Jones.