ATLANTA – Tom Brady usually makes it look so easy.
Year after year, he churned out staggering offensive numbers with such regularity it was hard to envision much of a drop-off, even when he lost two of his most trusted receivers.
But here we are, three weeks into the season, and Brady is struggling to get in sync with his new guys.
Sure, the Patriots (3-0) are off to a strong start in the standings, but defense and the running game have largely carried the load. Brady turns up in some very unfamiliar spots on the stat sheet: 24th in passer rating, 26th in completion percentage, 33rd in average gain per attempt.
"We've definitely left some points on the board," he said heading into Sunday's prime-time game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Brady knew things would be a bit different after Wes Welker signed with the Broncos and Brandon Lloyd was released. A year ago, those two combined for 192 receptions, 2,265 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Also, receiver Danny Amendola missed the last two games with a groin injury, while two-time Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski has yet to play while recovering from forearm and back surgeries. In the meantime, rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson have become Brady's main receivers, a transition that hasn't gone all that smoothly.
The Patriots have really struggled in the red zone, scoring only four times in 13 trips inside the 20-yard line.
"You're always trying to develop that (timing) over the course of the season," Brady said. "You don't really have it figured out to start."
Brady and the passing game will need to pick up against the Falcons (1-2), a team that has another of the league's top quarterbacks, Matt Ryan, and plenty of offensive weapons.
Atlanta has an extra sense of urgency after a pair of last-minute losses, leaving the team in danger of falling two games below .500 for the first time under coach Mike Smith.
The Falcons have been outscored 48-24 in the second half.
"The big theme for us is finishing," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We don't want to give Tom too many chances because he'll hurt you. He's one of the best of all time. Any time you have a guy like that, you don't want him on the field that much."
Especially if Gronkowski is able to play.
He practiced during the week but was coy about whether he'd return against the Falcons.
Here are five things to watch for when the Falcons host the Patriots:
WHERE'S RODDY? Falcons WR Roddy White is still trying to get back to full speed after spraining his right ankle during the preseason. White played in the first three games but wasn't very effective with seven catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns. That puts him on pace for 37 catches and 299 yards over a full season. White's infectiveness has made it easier for defenses to cover Gonzalez, who has 93 yards on 11 receptions.
GIVE US A D: New England has long been known for its high-scoring offense, but the other side of the line has carried the Patriots over the first three weeks. They have allowed only three touchdowns (another scored on a fumble return) and are tied with Kansas City for the fewest points allowed (34) in the AFC. But the early success comes with a caveat: The Patriots have yet to face an elite quarterback, feasting on a pair of rookies — Buffalo's EJ Manuel and Geno Smith of the New York Jets — along with Tampa Bay's struggling and now-benched Josh Freeman.
FALCONS BOUNCE BACK: Under Smith, the Falcons have had only three losing streaks over the past five-plus seasons, all of them two-game skids during the 2009 season. Atlanta is riding a streak of 14 straight wins after losses and can't afford to lose any more ground to first-place New Orleans in the NFC South.
SEE PATS RUN: New England doesn't have a go-to runner, but the committee approach is working just fine. Stevan Ridley tops the Patriots with 121 yards. LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden took the lead in last week's victory over Tampa Bay. The Patriots rank 12th in the league in rushing (122.7 yards per game), 10 spots higher than their vaunted passing game.
SACK MASTERS: Pressuring the quarterback has been a major Falcons weakness over the past few seasons, but they're coming off a five-sack performance against Miami. Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan relies on stunts, blitzes and other deceptive schemes to make up for the lack of a big-time end. While Brady is hard to take down, the Falcons need to disrupt his timing with those young receivers.
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