ATLANTA — This is new territory for Matt Ryan.
The Atlanta quarterback passed for a career-best 421 yards and two touchdowns, leading a furious comeback that came up short as the New England Patriots held on for a 30-23 victory Sunday night.
The Falcons (1-3) dipped two games below .500 for the first time since 2007 – the year before Ryan arrived to lead the best era in franchise history.
At the moment, Atlanta hardly looks like the Super Bowl contender it was projected to be at the beginning of the season.
"Obviously, we're not where we want to be," said Ryan, who completed 34 of a career-high 54 passes. "We've got to claw ourselves back to where we want to be. It's a long haul. There's still a long way to go."
Tony Gonzalez also had a career night with 149 yards on 12 catches.
It wasn't enough.
"Everybody's disappointed," Gonzalez said. "We know that we're a good football team, but you are what the record says you are."
Tom Brady threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in his best outing of the season for the unbeaten Patriots, who improved to 4-0 for the first time since their near-perfect season in 2007.
"We slugged it out," Brady said. "We came to Atlanta, which is a tough place to play and they've got a very good team. It's nice to win and be 4-0."
The Patriots built a 30-13 lead before the Falcons rallied. Atlanta had a chance to tie it up in the final minute, but Aqib Talib knocked away Ryan's fourth-down pass for Roddy White in the end zone with 36 seconds remaining.
"We've got to do a better job of finishing out the game," New England coach Bill Belichick said, "but we did a good job of putting ourselves in that position with a 17-point lead with 6 minutes to go in the game."
The Patriots again played without star tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola, both left at home with injuries.
But the Brady-led offense finally looked like itself after struggling a bit the first three games. New England seemed in control when LeGarrette Blount scored on a 47-yard run, and Brady threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.
Thompkins, an undrafted free agent, finished with six catches for 127 yards – nearly as much as the first three games of his career combined.
"He's an impressive young player," Brady said. "It's really rare to see that with a young player, to step in with confidence like that he has."
Julian Edelman chipped in with 118 yards on seven receptions.
"We're missing quite a few guys," Brady said, "so hopefully when we get them back, we'll be more efficient."
New England led just 13-10 before a wild final period. Blount stunned the Georgia Dome crowd with his burst through a gaping hole, cutting outside and dragging defenders into the end zone.
After Matt Bryant's 45-yard field goal brought the Falcons to 20-13, Brady guided the Patriots on an 80-yard drive that took only five plays and barely 2 minutes.
Edelman hauled in a 16-yard pass, followed by 44-yard reception that set up the touchdown throw to Thompkins in the left corner of the end zone, sending many of the Atlanta fans heading to the exits with nearly 10 minutes left.
They nearly missed an epic comeback after Stephen Gostkowski's third field goal pushed the Patriots to their 17-point lead.
Gonzalez hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass, the Falcons recovered an onside kick, then drove for another field goal by Bryant.
New England recovered a second onside kick, only to fumble a snap trying to convert on fourth down, turning it back over to the Falcons.
Ryan completed a 49-yard pass to Julio Jones to put Atlanta in position to force overtime before a mostly empty stadium.
The drive fell short, the Falcons bitten again by their season-long struggles in the red zone.
Atlanta scored only one touchdown on six trips inside the 20. That included settling for a field goal on their first possession, when they had first-and-goal at the 6, and Smith's decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the 7. That failed when Ryan threw it behind White in the flats.
"We're just not executing how we need to in the red zone," Smith said. "We're moving the ball well between the 20s. But we're not ending with touchdowns. You've got to score touchdowns in this league. It's an offensive league."
NOTES: Ryan's previous career highs were 52 passes and 411 yards. ... The Falcons had won 14 in a row after losses. This is their first two-game losing streak since 2009. ... Atlanta, which faces the New York Jets in Week 5, has never lost three in a row under Smith. ... The Patriots rushed for 132 yards. Blount led with 64 yards on nine carries, while Ridley chipped in with 53 yards on 11 carries. ... In addition to breaking up Atlanta's final pass, Talib also had an interception in the fourth quarter – his fourth of the season.
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