Falcons Outlast Patriots 26-23

Atlanta, GA - The Atlanta Falcons claimed victory in a back and forth scoring affair Friday night when Michael Keonen's 40-yard attempt sailed through the uprights with no time remaining. The Falcons 26-23 victory was setup by a late drive led by rookie quarterback D.J. Shockley who guided the Falcons on a into Keonen's range in less than two minutes. It was the first preseason game for both teams

The outcome seemed inevitable after watching Shockley guide the Falcons 56 yards in 14 plays to the Patriots 22 yard line. All you needed to know was that Michel Keonen was setting up for the final kick, much like former Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri had done so many times in New England.

Keonen had already belted kicks of 44, 50 and 45 yards when he lined up for the Coupe de grace. Manning all three specialist duties during the night (Punter, place kicker and kickoff specialist) Keonen was in his element. The ball was aligned on the left hash - Keonen's preferred side of the field, and well within his range.

Snap, hold, kick… Game over.

Atlanta Falcons coach Jim Mora walks the sidelines against the New England Patriots Aug 11, 2006, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Falcons coach Jim Mora had reservations about handing the starting role to Keonen, but with the type of performance he turned in, it would be hard not to.

"I do have reservations about it, so I can't say he won the job," Mora said. "I liked what I saw in him tonight but we still have concerns about having a guy do all three (punt, kick off, and kick field goals), so we have to take in another week or so and see where he is, how he feels and how he holds up. The last thing we want to do is wear him out through the season, but at the same time if he has the ability to affect the game the way he did tonight with not only his kick off but his punts. That's something that we have to think long and hard about."

Both teams played their starting quarterbacks for one series each before turning the ball over to the backups. Michael Vick put the Falcons on the scoreboard first with a 10-play 50-yard drive that setup Keonen's first FG of the night, a 44-yarder, which put the Falcons up 3-0.

Vick drove the Falcons down the field with a 15-yard hookup to Michael Jenkins and a 16-yard scramble on a 3rd and 4 to put Atlanta in scoring position. Warrick Dunn chipped in with a 17-yard scamper of his own. The drive stalled out after Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel sacked Vick at the Patriots 27 and the next play netted only a yard.

"The first drive was good," said Vick of his one and only drive in the game. "As far as concept wise, we've been working on the offense for the last couple of weeks in training camp. It was good to get our feet wet … we look forward to getting better."

Tom Brady led the Patriots into scoring position on his first and only possession. The Patriots new look running game with Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney accounted for most of the yardage netting 63 of the 75 yards in the drive. A key play on the drive was a Maroney draw for 27 yards on a 3rd and 18 from the Falcons 42. Maroney hit the hole and blew through the front seven into the secondary before being dragged down.

"We've been working hard, getting things straightened out and it's showing up," said Dillon of the running game. "Everybody was out there doing their job. I was just reading the great blocks that were given to me by our offensive line."

New England Patriots' Laurence Maroney (39) eludes Atlanta Falcons' Lawyer Milloy (36) for a gain during the first half of an exhibition football game Friday, Aug. 11, 2006, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

The drive sputtered when Reche Caldwell dropped a Brady pass in the end zone in what looked to be a very catchable ball.

Martin Gramatica trotted out to kick a 26-yard field goal. His successful kick made the score tied at 3-3 and signaled time for the reserves for both sides to enter the game.

The balance of the game was an assortment of big plays for both teams. Atlanta's No. 2 quarterback Matt Schaub sputtered in his first drive going three-and out. He quickly snapped out of it after the Falcons defense forced a turnover from a strip-sack of Patriots backup QB Matt Cassel. Schaub hit Michael Jenkins who out jumped Asante Samuel in the end zone for the game's first touchdown - a 21 scoring strike.

Cassel's second opportunity turned out better than the first. He connected on his first big play of the game when tight end Ben Watson took a mid range pass and turned it into a 44-yard gain. The drive stalled at the Falcons 16. Rookie kicked Stephen Gostkowski put his first NFL points on the board when he booted a 34-yard attempt inside the uprights to bring the Patriots within four (10-6).

Schaub recovered from his next mistake, a bad throw that resulted in an Asante Samuel interception in the end zone killing a Falcon drive. The teams exchange 3-and-outs setting up the final scoring drive of the first half - a 50-yard kick by Keonen that put the Falcons up 13-6 at the half.

Schaub took the Falcons from their own 8 to the Patriots 32 in 9 plays. Big plays were the keys to the Falcon's ability to move the ball, and rookie running back Jerious Norwood was the star of the night aside from Keonen.

Norwood made a number of big plays through the night; including a 37-yard reception in the first half and a 34-yard catch and run for a touchdown in the third quarter, which put the Falcons up 23-13.

"I could not have done it without the receivers blocking down field and the offensive line blocking," said Norwood. "The offensive line did a great job up front tonight. I am thankful for the win."

Patriots' quarterback Matt Cassel benefited from big plays by his own players. Running back Patrick Cobbs took a Cassel screen pass and rumbled 57-yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to close the Falcons lead to three at 16-13. After the Norwood 34-yard touchdown to put the Falcons up by 10, Garrett Mills took another Cassel pass and rumbled to the Falcons 1 yard line. Heath Evans ran it in to bring the Patriots back to within 3 points early in the fourth period.

The final Cassel drive looked more out-of-sync than the stuff of legend, but it was effective. The offense struggled to make its way from the Patriots 8 into Falcons territory before finally sputtering out at the Falcons 12 yard line after a 16-play 80-yard drive. In the final series, Cassel tossed a pair of incomplete passes, the last one, which was low and away from Keron Henry at the goal line. The drive was capped off by a 30-yard Gramatica field goal with 2:44 left. The scoring drive gave false hope that the game would go into overtime.

The field goal was a positive for Cassel and the offense, but the two missed opportunities for a touchdown could have put the team in a much better position, and prevented Keonen's heroics.

"I need to play a lot better. I left a lot of throws out there," said Cassel of his struggles. "There were some plays here and there, but for the most part my throws were a bit too inconsistent and I think that I can definitely play better."

The preseason is a time for backups and NFL hopefuls to get the playing time necessary to show why they deserve a shot at a roster spot. It also leads to inconsistent play as various units shuffle in and out. Cassel wouldn't use the personnel changes as an excuse in his performance.

"It doesn't affect me for the most part," Cassel noted. "I still have to go through the same reads. I still have to make my decisions and throw the ball. You know that there are going to be a lot of people in there so you have to familiarize yourself with everything."

After the game, Patriots head coach remarked that he took the experience as a lesson learned about the players more than the result.

"Atlanta is a good football team," Belichick said. "We were inconsistent in some areas of the game, but I thought there [were] some positive things. We will go back and look at the film and try to put it all together. It was a good learning experience for us down here.

As far as preseason games go, Friday night's outing in Atlanta was one to remember. It had bits of everything for the fans, big plays, turnovers, drama and heroics.

The Patriots head home to Gillette Stadium where they will resume training camp for another week. Their first practice is on Monday where will prepare for their next preseason game at home against the Arizona Cardinals. The Falcons next game will be in Green Bay against the Packers.


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