FOXBORO, Mass. — The Patriots are sitting pretty at 4-0 a quarter of the way into the season.
It hasn’t been an easy unbeaten stretch, but New England tops the AFC East thus far with wins over the conference-rival Bills and Jets. There have been some rough moments and close games, but if anything, that just gives Bill Belichick more teaching points after games. He would probably prefer the games not go perfectly early on.
The Patriots have appeared to make progress every week so far. The Falcons were New England’s toughest opponents and both the offense and defense made strides.
Check out who the top players have been four weeks into the season in our first-quarter team superlatives.
Quarterly MVP: Aqib Talib
Maybe it’s because his performance in Week 4 is still fresh in my mind, but Talib seems like the obvious choice for MVP of the first quarter of the season. The defense has shown drastic improvement from last season and it starts with Talib.
If the sixth-year player had not done such a great job on Roddy White and Julio Jones in Atlanta, New England almost certainly would have lost that game. He stood out against the Bills, Jets and Buccaneers — especially in shutting down Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams in Week 3.
Offensive player of the quarter: Julian Edelman
Tom Brady has struggled at times, Stevan Ridley has taken a step back and no one particularly stands out on the offensive line, so Edelman gets the nod. The slot receiver has 34 receptions on 43 targets for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps the most impressive part about Edelman’s season is that he’s had the pressure of taking over for Wes Welker and Danny Amendola. And he’s shining regardless.
Edelman is on pace for 136 catches, 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. He probably won’t pile up those lofty numbers, but he needs just three catches and 40 yards to top his best NFL season — his rookie year.
Defensive player of the quarter: Rob Ninkovich
Since Talib got MVP, Ninkovich takes defensive player of the quarter. Ninkovich leads the defense in total pressures with 24. He has just a 1/2 sack, but the versatile defensive end has also piled up 19 hurries and four quarterback hits.
Ninkovich consistently gets in the backfield in the passing game and is constantly coming up with key plays against the run. He’s slightly undersized for the left defensive end role, but he’s stout at sealing off the edge.
Rookie of the quarter: Kenbrell Thompkins
Before Week 4, this one probably would have gone to defensive end Michael Buchanan. But Thompkins’ six-catch, 127-yard game pushed him above the defender.
Thompkins is on pace for 60 catches for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns. That’s a stunning number for an undrafted free agent who totaled just 78 catches for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns in two years at Cincinnati.
Most improved player from last season: Dont’a Hightower
Steve Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard and Talib also made strides over the offseason, but Hightower’s have been the most significant. Hightower appears quicker, more fluid and more instinctive. The linebacker had a little trouble covering Tony Gonzalez, but nearly half the team tried and failed to cover the future hall-of-fame tight end.
The team obviously prefers Hightower in the nickel defense over Brandon Spikes. On Sunday, Spikes received just six snaps all game, compared to Hightower’s 50. That’s a sign that the Patriots like what they see in the second-year player.
Most improved player from Week 1: Joe Vellano
Vellano really struggled in his first pro game. He wound up on the turf multiple times, didn’t generate any pressure and was getting pushed out of rushing lanes with single and doubles teams. Vellano has slowly improved every week since, though.
In Wilfork’s place on Sunday night, Vellano had a sack, a pressure and he held his ground exceptionally well as New England’s nose.
Play of the quarter: Aqib Talib’s game-saving pass breakup against Falcons
Is there really any other choice? Take a look at what Matt Ryan saw right before he let go of the ball.
Talib made an incredible play on the ball, and he deserves most of the credit for his game-saving pass breakup, but it was also a beautifully drawn up play by Belichick. The right players were doubled and Talib and Hightower were trusted in one-on-one coverage.
Most transactions: Josh Kline and Kanorris Davis
They’re not exactly Ross Ventrone, but Kline and Davis have each been signed, cut, signed to the practice squad, activated from the practice squad, cut again and signed to the practice squad again.
Best quote: Rob Gronkowski
“I don’t really lose weight. I can look skinny and still be the same amount of weight. It goes by skinny or looking jacked. So I was skinny back a few months.”
Best free-agent acquisition: Tommy Kelly
The Patriots are lucky to have Kelly now that Vince Wilfork is out for the season. Kelly is best at the three-technique “under” defensive tackle position, but he’s played the nose before and he’s the heaviest defensive lineman left on the roster.
Kelly has done a nice job of getting after the quarterback and he’s been stout in the run game. If there were any doubts that Kelly didn’t have much left after spending nine years with the Raiders, those should be put to rest.