COMMENTARY | Despite some trials and tribulations the New England Patriots have emerged from the first three weeks of the 2013 season with a perfect 3-0 mark. They will look to extend their pristine record in a tough Week 4 matchup on the road against the Atlanta Falcons, but will need to rely on some key contributors if that is going to happen.
Here are five players to watch in Week 4 versus Atlanta:
Quarterback Tom Brady: The veteran signal caller is the focal point of New England's offense, but his presence will be even more vital than usual on the road against the Falcons.
Playing in the Georgia Dome, one of the noisiest venues in the NFL, is a challenge for any team, let alone one like the Patriots with a number of young players. Brady's experience and poise will be key in determining if the team can overcome Atlanta's big home advantage.
Brady may also be able to exploit Atlanta's secondary. They start a rookie (Desmond Trufant) and a former Patriot (Asante Samuel) at cornerback. The wily quarterback could use that combination of inexperience and familiarity to the benefit of the passing game.
Wide Receiver Aaron Dobson: The rookie finally had a breakout game in Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hauling in seven catches for 52 yards. This came on the heels of an injury, having several drops and earning the ire of Brady during the first two weeks of the season.
NESN.com's Doug Kyed wrote that Dobson will likely be lined up against fellow rookie Trufant, who he previously faced in the Senior Bowl in college. It will be one of the few times this season the receiver will be able to go up against somebody he has seen before, and it could help him have another big game.
Linebacker Dont'a Hightower: The second-year man out of Alabama has performed strongly on defense this year after a solid rookie campaign. Through three games, he has 15 tackles and has increasingly been given more responsibilities on passing downs over more experienced teammate Brandon Spikes.
Hightower's ability to make stops, particularly against the passing game, will receive a true test when he is matched up against Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez. Now in his 17th season, the veteran is one of the best to ever play the position, having caught 1,253 passes for 14,361 yards and 104 touchdowns in his illustrious career.
If the young linebacker can shut down Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan's safety valve, it could shrink the rest of the field considerably for the New England defense, and point them towards possible victory.
Running Back Brandon Bolden: Playing in his first game of the season last week against the Buccaneers, Bolden dominated, rushing for 51 yards on just three carries while recording five catches for 49 yards. He even lined up as a receiver on the outside on a few plays. His ability to be a dual threat is something no other back on the current New England roster can offer.
Bolden gives Brady another weapon that can be used in just about any situation. If he is able to produce once again in a jack-of-all-trades role, he could not only spark the offense but also open up opportunities for his teammates if defenders shift from them to help stop the running back.
Cornerback Aqib Talib: New England's best defensive back will most certainly be lined up against Julio Jones, the Falcons' dominant young receiver.
Although the 24-year-old Jones has combined for 27 catches, 373 yards and two scores in his first three games, he could have met his match in Talib.
The defensive back already has three interceptions this season for the Patriots, having blanketed the opposition's top receiver each week.
On top of the typical stakes, Talib is also playing for a new contract, as he is currently on a one-year deal with the team and due to be a free agent at the end of the season.
Conclusion: The Patriots will have to execute the perfect game plan to beat a tough team like the Falcons, especially since the game is on the road. However, if they get contributions from some key players, it will make that task all the more possible.
New England's ability (or inability) to come through in this matchup could significantly impact the tone for the remainder of the season. These key players will have a lot to say about the outcome of the game, so their every play should be watched with particular interest.
In addition to the Yahoo Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written extensively for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports (particularly the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots). He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can also follow Andrew on Twitter: @HistorianAndrew.
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