FOXBORO -- The Patriots offensive line got what it wanted late on Sunday night: Four-minute offense. Two-score lead. This was their chance to salt away the game, a chance to bury an opponent when everyone in the building knew what was coming.
Five rushing attempts and 32 yards later . . . victory formation.
"The weight is on our back as an offensive line, and that's when we gotta pull through," Nate Solder said following his team's 23-7 win over the Falcons. "That's what we work at. That's what we are constantly striving to do and when we have that opportunity and we come through, that's something we can build off of."
Early in the year, the moments in which Dante Scarnecchia's group asserted its will as it did against Atlanta were seemingly non-existent. For the first five weeks of the season, short-yardage conversions were a problem, and Tom Brady was on pace to be hit more than ever before in his career. There were questions as to whether or not the 40-year-old quarterback would last if he continued to take the kind of punishment he'd been subjected to, and all eyes were on the blockers in front of him.
Over the course of the last two weeks, though, the Patriots offensive line appears to have found a toe-hold. Against the Jets in Week 6, they helped create room for running backs to pick up 118 yards on 25 carries (4.7 yards per attempt). Against the Falcons, they churned out a season-high 162 yards on 36 carries (4.5) and helped their offense maintain possession for over 34 minutes.
The trickle-down effect has been staggering. A greater level of efficiency in the running game has meant more play-action, better protection for Brady, and sustained drives that help keep offenses like Atlanta's off the field.
The improvement in pass-protection has been perhaps the most obvious change. Brady's been sacked just twice in the last two weeks and hit just six times. Both sacks came early against the Falcons, and neither appeared to be due to obvious offensive-line mishaps. On the first, De'Vondre Campbell rushed in off of Brady's blindside untouched by Rob Gronkowski and Mike Gillislee. Brady never seemed to account for him. On the second, Brady was brought down from behind by Vic Beasley about four seconds into the down.
Through five weeks, after taking a handful of jarring shots from the Buccaneers, Brady was on track to be sacked more than 50 times and hit over 100 times -- both career highs. It was not sustainable. He's now on pace to be sacked 41 times.
Would his personal protectors like to see that number continue to shrink? Of course, but at least it's headed in the right direction.
"We knew we could play like that and just hadn't been," Patriots center and captain David Andrews said. "It's frustrating, but it's good to come out and put up a performance like that."
What made the early-season struggles so maddening was that this group was made up of the same five that went almost wire-to-wire as the starters last season on their way to a Super Bowl. It's a relatively young unit -- Andrews and right guard Shaq Mason are in their third years, while left guard Joe Thuney is in his second -- but it's a line that has a wealth of experience together and expected to start stronger.
There was not one look-in-the-mirror conversation or emotional positional meeting to get things turned around. "It's not a magic spell or anything," Thuney said.
But there was an admission of mistakes being made and a commitment to fix them in a hurry.
"We got a great group, mature group," Andrews said. "Even though we've got a bunch of young guys, we've all played a lot of football. There was no rah-rah speech or intervention or anything like that. It was just, 'Here are the facts: We gotta do better. We know we can do better. We know what the results can be.' For us it's just going to the grindstone each week, getting better, practicing hard and that leads to good things."
The Patriots ran the ball on 54 percent of their offensive plays Sunday night, and Brady threw just 29 passes. It was the first time this season he’s attempted fewer than 35 and just the fifth time in the last three-plus seasons he’s thrown fewer than 30 in a regular-season game.
It would seem as though Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels trust their offensive line and their running game as much as they have all season. Still, Belichick was reluctant to heap too much praise on the trench hogs that have recently found their footing.
"The more runs you have, the more yards you’re going to gain," Belichick said. "We played this game from ahead, which that was a switch. We hadn’t done a ton of that this year, so that gives you an opportunity to run the ball more.
"We ran it in the fourth quarter which is another time where you can pile up some runs if you can make first downs. We weren’t able to do that against Tampa. We weren’t able to do it last week against the Jets. We did it tonight. It was good to get those yards when they knew we were going to run, and when we needed to run, we got the yards."
Those kinds of opportunities will surely present themselves again next week against the Chargers, two weeks later against the Broncos and every week thereafter.
Consecutive games of solid play from the offensive line won't mean much then, and the Patriots know it. But to feel like they've got something to build on after looking lost for the better part of the first third of the season is encouraging.
"We're not where we want to be," Andrews said. "We're improving so that's good. But the ceiling is up here, and we're way down here. We just want to keep improving, keep improving. It's never going to be good enough. There's always something to work on."