BY SHALISE MANZA YOUNG
Journal Sports Writer
FOXBORO - Like great stand-up comedy, sometimes the best things are improvised.
Tom Brady revealed after Sunday's win over the Falcons that his 36-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Chris Baker on third-and-six was drawn up by Bill Belichick on the sidelines during a timeout.
"It was pretty much on the sideline coach Belichick said, 'Well, what do you think about this?' The guys that ran the play didn't run it all week in practice and they made an adjustment," Brady said. "Chris has been really dependable for us since the day he got here. He made a great catch-and-run. He's a threat out there for us, so getting him more involved today like we did today and Fred (Taylor) and Sammy (Morris), those were some nice positives for us."
Baker took off down the right sideline and Brady put a nice touch pass on the money for the tight end's first score as a member of the Patriots. He was signed to a five-year free agent deal before the season.
"I just kind of improvised the route," Baker said. "I went out to the flat and saw Tom still had the ball, so I just turned it up and he found me down the sideline. It was great. We wanted to really push the game out of reach...to get the touchdown and put (the game) out of reach, that was big for us."
Brady was asked if Belichick had been more involved in the offensive play-calling during the week; without a true offensive coordinator on the staff, it seems that quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien is the one calling plays, but Belichick always plays a part.
"He's involved in every play that's called," Brady said. "That one, like I said, we just kind of drew it up there on the sidelines and made it work."
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The Patriots entered the game with Atlanta with just four receivers active again, as Wes Welker missed his second straight game due to a knee injury.
Also not active were cornerbacks Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite; Wilhite was a surprise scratch, as he hasn't showed up on the team's injury report this season.
Belichick said after the game that Wilhite got hurt "this morning," but didn't elaborate.
During the game, New England saw even more players head to the sidelines, as Laurence Maroney (thigh) and Vince Wilfork (ankle) left in the first half and did not return. Mike Wright (wrist/arm) was injured in the fourth quarter and was done for the day.
"Everybody has something to do and a role on this team," Pierre Woods said about playing without Wilfork and Wright. "Whatever you're asked to do, you have to do it to the best of your abilities. Things happen, and you don't ever want anybody to go down, but you have to go out there and try to play hard for each other."
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Matthew Slater's only appearance in the post-game summary is as a substitute player, but the fact that the second-year safety/special teamer was on the field Sunday is triumph enough.
In the Patriots' regular-season finale against the Giants, Slater suffered a dislocated left elbow at the end of a kickoff return - photos of the injury show a joint bent in a freakishly unnatural position - and a little more than three weeks later, he was able to suit up against the Falcons.
"I just thank God for it," Slater said. "At the end of the day, I know that's why I'm out there. It could have been worse, and to be able to play and contribute it a blessing. It was fun."
As grotesque as Slater's injury looked on replay and in pictures, "It (felt) as bad as it looked," he said. "The worst pain of my life."
Slater got to play in special teams coverage, though he didn't get the chance to field any kicks because he hasn't practiced much catching the ball with his elbow brace.
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On one third-quarter drive, the Patriots kept their offense on the field on fourth down twice and converted both times, keeping the drive going long enough for the team to get its fourth field goal of the afternoon.
Shawn Springs knows better than most what it feels like to be on the other side of plays like that. The defensive back was a member of the Redskins when they came to Gillette Stadium in 2007 and walked out on the very wrong side of a 52-7 score, a game in which the Patriots converted several fourth downs.
"They went for it on fourth-and-one three times in that game," Springs said. "I can't say I don't like it now though."
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Though he played collegiately at nearby Boston College, Matt Ryan had never been to a game at Gillette Stadium until Sunday when the reigning offensive rookie of the year came with his Falcons.
"I had never been down here; first and foremost, it was cool to see it," he said. "I have watched from a distance during my time at BC. (But) I have played enough games in this league; when you go somewhere, you have to produce, and you have to line up against whomever you are playing against, so it doesn't make a difference. You have to go out and execute."
With his big weapon, Tony Gonzalez, held in check and the running game stymied by the Patriots' defense, Ryan threw for just 199 yards on 17-of-28 attempts with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
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With two corners unavailable, New England had Terrence Wheatley active for the first time this season.
After missing the second half of last season due to a wrist injury, Wheatley wasn't up to game speed and said it took him a little while to adjust to the pace of the game. But by the second half, "I felt like myself again," he said.
Wheatley struggled out of the gate this year; at the time he got hurt last season, he was starting to put everything together.