ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons insisted there was no reason to worry when they failed to win a single preseason contest.
Now that they're 1-3 in the games that count following Sunday night's 30-23 home loss to New England, that tune may be changing.
"You get what you earn in the NFL, and we've earned a 1-3 record through the first quarter of the season," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith.
The Falcons did earn a shot at victory late. After sending the majority of the 70,744 who had filled the Georgia Dome to start this game to the exits early in the fourth quarter by falling behind 30-13, they outscored the Patriots 10-3 over the next six minutes to pull within 30-23 with three minutes to go.
Then they almost forced overtime inside the final two minutes before running out of downs at the Patriots' 10 with less than 40 seconds to play.
But in the end, that 17-point hole midway through the fourth quarter was too big a gap to close against a Patriots squad that now stands 4-0.
"We're just not executing like we need to in the red zone," Smith said, who watched 37-year-old tight end Tony Gonzalez's personal best 149-yard receiving effort go unrewarded. "This is an offensive league. You need to come away with touchdowns, not field goals."
The first three quarters offered no indication that the Patriots would threaten to run away and hide from a Falcons bunch that was seen as a serious Super Bowl contender at season's dawn. The first half ended in a 10-all tie. New England only led 13-10 entering the final period.
Nor did this appear to be a mismatch on paper, despite the Patriots arriving in the Big Peach with a 3-0 record and the Falcons standing 1-2. None of New England's three wins had come against teams currently holding winning records at the end of Week 4.
Conversely, the Falcons' two losses had come on the road against New Orleans and Miami, who both enter tonight's game in the Big Easy with 3-0 records.
But then the game began and Atlanta wasted a fine opening drive, settling for a field goal after advancing 75 yards from their own 20 to the New England 5 in 11 plays.
When the Pats answered that with a 75-yard drive of their own that found the end zone, Atlanta trailed 7-3 less than three minutes into the second quarter.
But after limiting the Patriots to a field goal with 3:27 to go, the Falcons showed why they came within a single score of the Super Bowl last season. Driving 80 yards in eight plays, Matt Ryan hit Gonzalez from 21 yards out 38 seconds before halftime to tie the score at 10.
Beyond that, Atlanta actually dominated the opening half statistically, leading in total yards (217 to 160) and first downs (13-8).
New England would score the only points of the third quarter, however. After driving to the Falcons 4 with 5:29 left in the period, the Pats settled for a 22-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and a 13-10 lead heading to the fourth quarter.
It was at that moment, New England facing a 3rd and 14 from its own 17 that it all began to unravel for Atlanta.
First, Tom Brady hit Kenbrell Thompkins for a 26-yard gain. A personal foul penalty moved the ball to the ATL 47. Then Pats running back LeGarrette Blount broke through the left side of his offensive line and raced to the end zone.
Less than a minute was gone in the final quarter and the home team trailed 20-10. Though Atlanta would make a late, desperate charge deep into the final period, it was all too little too late to avoid its third loss over the season's first four weeks.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.