Funny how that game fans, radio hosts and other supposed know-it-alls like to play when the NFL releases the season schedule rarely works out.
For example, how many folks saw the Patriots' season slate when it was put out last spring and had them, oh maybe 6-1 at this point in the season? Or possibly even 7-0?
The first prediction seemed reasonable, what with the horrid NFC West on the docket. Last year, only the San Francisco 49ers had a record above .500 from that division. Surely, the Pats would run roughshod over the three other also-rans from out there, right?
The Rams were 2-14 last year with Pats' offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at the helm of their offense. But they cleaned house after the season and brought in longtime Oilers/Titans coach Jeff Fisher to oversee a massive rebuild. And you could say that the Rams are ahead of schedule.
They've already surpassed their win total from last season and have been in position to win two other games only to fall short in the closing seconds. They have a young, fast, tough, opportunistic defense ranked 10th in the NFL in both total yards (324.4) and scoring (20.1). And they have a former No. 1 overall pick at QB in Sam Bradford who has stayed healthy and looks vastly improved, currently sporting career highs in completion percentage, yards per pass attempt and passer rating.
That the game will be played in London as opposed to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis probably helps the Pats somewhat. But what will really help them is being able to get a better, more consistent performance out of their offense than in the past two weeks as well as even a mediocre showing from their pass defense, which at this point, may be a little too much to ask for.
When looking at the schedule back in the spring and prior to the start of the season, this game more than likely appeared to be a walkover for the Pats. Now, it stands to be a very tough battle against an exciting, young, up-and-coming team.
So with that, let's get into some of the more crucial match ups this rematch of Super Bowl XXXVI has to offer.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
Assuming McDaniels and the Pats offensive brain trust noticed that the team's most successful moments of last week's win over the Jets came in the two-minute drill when Tom Brady spread everyone out and marched the team down the field in as exacting a way as we're all used to seeing him do. That type of passing attack should be the focal point this week.
That's not to say the Pats should be in two-minute mode all day (although the lack of the up tempo, fast style of play against the Jets was somewhat curious). But the Rams are good against the pass and so the Pats will want to take them out of their comfort zone by keeping them off balance.
St. Louis features a very strong defensive line stocked with pass rushers and, like the Giants have done so well against the Pats in their two Super Bowl wins, can get pressure on the opposing QB with just their front four. Behind that group are a couple of corners who can really cover in veteran Cortland Finnegan (who will probably spend a lot of time on Wes Welker) and rookie Janoris Jenkins, a high first-round talent who tumbled to the start of the second round for being a knucklehead off the field.
Those two have helped the Rams to third in the league in opposing QBs yards per attempt on throws outside the numbers at just 5.6. Therein lies another reason why the Pats should look to play the kind of spread out passing game that features quick hitters to Welker, Rob Gronkowski and, if he plays, Aaron Hernandez (Hernandez missed practice on Thursday). Those three are death to opposing defenses between the numbers and in the middle of the field so if Brady can get them the ball on those spots, the Pats will be playing away from the Rams' strength.
If Brady has his full complement of O-linemen after missing Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly against the Jets, he should have time to throw, even against the Rams powerful pass rush. And don't forget, for as well as they've played against the pass thus far, the Rams were shredded through the air by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last week. The Pats are not at the same level offensively as Green Bay at the moment, but they're capable of it.
When the Rams pass the ball.
This one shouldn't be too tough to figure out. Once again, the Pats look to be undermanned in the secondary as Steve Gregory, the most consistent DB on the roster through the first three weeks, remains out and, shockingly, Ras-I Dowling looks like he'll miss the game too. Can you even believe it?
Dowling's latest injury aside, this is a match up that doesn't require a whole lot of analysis. If the Rams throw on the Pats as much as they can, particularly down the field, they should be able to do whatever they want on offense. The Pats secondary is markedly worse than it was even a month ago and as bad as its been over the past three-plus seasons, its performance the past two weeks has been as bad as ever.
It's not all on the secondary, though. The Pats again, just as in recent years, aren't getting enough consistent pressure on opposing QBs. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are having All-Pro caliber seasons but too often, guys like Mark Sanchez, Russell Wilson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, QBs who are among the bottom third in the league, have time to stand in the pocket, wait for a Pats' DB to make a mistake and find a receiver 10-15 yards clear of any member of the defense. This is a problem that can be linked to all of the pass defense issues going back to the 2009 season.
Still, one wonders exactly what's going on in practices and meeting rooms during the week. Whether it's any variation of man coverage or any variation of zone coverage, it's astonishing how often opposing receivers are as wide open as in a seven-on-seven drill and how few times Pats' defensive backs look to be completely out of position.
The Rams are 24th in the league in passing with 209 yards per game and they have tow very impressive young receivers in Brandon Gibson, who is becoming their No. 1 guy (25 catches, 13.4 yards per catch) and Chris Givens, a rookie deep threat who could have a field day against the Pats secondary. But really, after all of the stats of the Pats last two opponents going completely out the window once the games began do rankings and numbers really matter here anymore?
The Pats are catching a break with two of Bradford's regular O-linemen injured and his favorite target, Welker-esque receiver Danny Amendola, unlikely to play. It's hard to see any of that making much of a difference though. This is a match up that favors every opposing offense that plays the Patriots until they prove otherwise.
When the Patriots run the ball.
If you believed that the Pats were a true running team after the slaughter in Buffalo and the win over Denver, you're not alone. Plenty of folks jumped on that bandwagon (hello, self!). The truth is, they're not the running juggernaut we may have thought they were.
The numbers were there last week against the Jets (131 yards on 31 attempts) but the attitude wasn't. If the Pats have to run the ball in crucial moments to win a game, the jury's still out on whether they can actually do it.
The Rams are 11th in the league against the run, allowing just under 100 yards per game on the ground. They have a giant, very active rookie chosen in the first round of this year's draft in Michael Brockers and a tackling machine at middle linebacker in James Laurinaitis. They are equipped to handle Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Danny Woodhead.
But will they? It's nice that the Pats are trying to be balanced on offense but they can't force it either way. At the same time as throwing 58 times, a la the Seattle game, is a bad idea, so is running just for the sake of it. Their success on the ground from earlier in the year came from taking what the opposing defense gave them, not forcing the issue.
Again, the key to the Pats on offense in this game is keeping the Rams off balance and doing what they do best. Brady may have said that he's not sure exactly what that is following last week's game, but judging by the results, spreading it out, finding the mismatch then hitting it looked like it was working pretty well. If they are successful doing that, they can establish the run from there
If Mankins and Connolly are healthy enough to play, that will help as well. The Pats can be a running team if they want to be. They just have to establish it naturally in the flow of their offense.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Rams 23
This game certainly will not be the walk it appeared to be when the schedules were released. If it comes right down to the end and the Pats are on defense, they are going to have to find a way to close it out that doesn't necessarily involve Ninkovich bailing them out yet again. The travel may be a factor as well, with the Pats having just one day to get used to the time difference. Still, the Pats have so many more weapons than the Rams that a loss feels like it would be a stretch. As long as the Pats stick to what they do best on offense, they should be fine. The defense is another story altogether. But if it can get to Bradford and make him uneasy in the pocket, that should make life easier for the wretched secondary. There's a bye next week and the banged up Pats need it badly. Going into that week off on a winning note will make the recovery time that much sweeter.