What is it about playing in London's Wembley Stadium that brings out the best in the Patriots?
In 2009, arguably the team's worst season of the Bill Belichick era other than its first on 2000, the Pats still managed to destroy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 35-7 over there.
And this season, as fans and talk show hosts unremittingly stoke the fire of a potential lost year, the Pats simply packed up, flew across the Atlantic and vaporized the St. Louis Rams 45-7 in their most complete, exacting and impressive effort of 2012.
Everyone played well in this one, even the secondary (sort of), which bounced back from getting scorched on yet another deep TD pass on the Rams' opening drive to pitch a shutout complete with a couple of interceptions, pass breakups, decent coverage and solid tackling. Who knew?
But this was mostly a game for the offense, which set a league record by recording its 17th straight game with at least 350 yards of total offense. The Pats posted 473 on this day and pretty much every skill position player on the side of the ball had something to do with it, from Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski right on down the line to Michael Hoomanawanui.
Given the somewhat understandable but mostly irrational hand-wringing of the past two weeks, Sunday's effort will provide a welcome respite from most of the doom and gloom naysayers who are always ready to throw a wet blanket on the Pats regardless of the results, especially now that we're into the bye week. Good on the Pats for producing such an excellent all-around performance, especially considering how banged up they are, if for no other reason than that it gives the cynics a little less ammo with which to bash them.
So, with the hurricane bearing down, let's get to this week's report card, coming at you like a 75 mile per hour gust.
Hmm, let's see. 23-of-35, 304 yards, four TDs, zero picks, 131.1 passer rating.
Yep, Tom Brady is definitely in decline.
This was one of Brady's vintage, signature games. You know, the ones in which he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants to with little to no obstruction? He recognized early that the Rams were both trying to get pressure on him from the edges and that Gronk was being covered for the most part by shrimpy nickel corners and went to work. It helped immensely that they came out running mostly three receiver sets, spread the Rams out and let him operate out of the shotgun right from the get-go and he responded by completing his first eight passes for 119 yards and a score. He found seven different receivers for at least one completion and made all the throws, whether a lead lob to Danny Woodhead for a 24 yards in a crucial, first quarter third down play, a perfectly placed fade throw to Lloyd for one of his two TDs or any number of the missiles he threaded to Gronk over the middle. Brady faced down a defense that came in with high marks but wilted when he started to get rolling and never recovered. It was just Brady being Brady, as good as it gets.
Running Backs: 4.5
If anyone had any doubts about Stevan Ridley after a couple of lackluster games following his near-crushing fumble against Denver back in Week 5, he pretty much silenced them in this game. Ridley exploded, ripping off 127 yards on just 15 attempts (8.5 yards a pop) and looked dominant in doing so. He had one run for a season-high 41 yards and added a 30-yarder on the second play of the second half, part of his 96 yards after the break. On one run, probably his most impressive of the season, he hurdled an oncoming defender over the middle, changed direction seemingly in midair, ran over safety Craig Dahl, burying him with his right shoulder (and knocking him out of the game in the process) and still picked up another few yards. It was a tremendous performance by Ridley, who should feel very confident today. He's halfway to 1,400-plus yards and that's an excellent, season-long haul for any back. Woodhead was excellent catching passes out of the backfield (five for 56 yards) and thankfully was only asked to run straight ahead just once. And Shane Vereen picked up his second TD of the season, soft-shoeing into the end zone on a ballsy, 4th-and-1 call from the goal line early in the second quarter that really set the tone for the aggressiveness the Pats would show on offense all day long. He only managed 3.1 yards per attempt on seven carries, a low-ish number, especially considering Ridley's 8.5. But to get on him would be nitpicking and we'll leave that for someone else.
Wide Receivers: 4.5
Lloyd bounced back from a lousy showing last week against the Jets with a couple of TDs one on each of his two catches. The first was a bit of offensive mastery, as he lined up in a three-receiver bunch on the strong side and ran a perfect in-and-out pattern to the corner of the end zone while the Rams DBs ran into each other trying to figure out who to cover. The second was just great route-running, as he faked Rams rookie corner Janoris Jenkins out of his jock and slanted across the formation to handle Brady's pass in the end zone easily. He and Brady re-connected in this game and that was a welcome sight given how out of sync they looked against the Jets. And it was also a major boost to see him blocking so well in the running game, once springing Ridley for a 20-yard gain with a perfect seal of an oncoming safety off the edge. Welker twisted his ankle on a scary looking play late in the game but said afterward he felt fine and with the bye week here, that sounds OK. He was shadowed by Cortland Finnegan, who appeared to be his team's only competent defender all day and held Welker to just 48 yards on six grabs. Julian Edelman played but thankfully didn't take any snaps from Welker and picked up eight yards on one catch. And huge ups to Deion Branch, who is somewhat of a shell of himself and had no catches despite playing roughly 75 percent of the snaps, but used his savvy to draw a couple of well-timed pass interference flags on a couple of plays that could have just as easily been no-calls. The second one led directly to a TD. Way to contribute, Deion!
Tight Ends: 5
So this Gronk guy, you think he's OK? He certainly looked healthy in this one, his most dominant, 2011-esque game of the year. Eight catches, 146 yards, two TDs, two absolutely out of this world celebrations (as great as the Buckingham Palace guard/Gronkenstein walk one was, his crazy hip swivel after the second TD was a thing of lunatic, crackpot beauty). If the opposing defense isn't doubling Gronk every chance it gets and instead using smaller, slower, less athletic players to try to cover him one-on-one, those defenses deserve to be torched the way Brady and Gronk torched the Rams in this game. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's skilled enough to make over the shoulder catches on slightly overthrown balls while running full speed or snatch a back shoulder throw in the end zone among multiple defenders while appearing to be barely looking. Or that he can be lined up anywhere on the line of scrimmage - in the slot, out wide, in a three-point stance, and not miss a beat. Gronk's been playing hurt and his role changes slightly when Aaron Hernandez isn't out there. But he reminded us on Sunday that he's still the best tight end in the NFL.
Offensive Line: 5
Hearing that Logan Mankins was the final inactive an hour before kickoff didn't exactly make one feel better about the Pats' chances. But it was the right call given how important he is and with the bye week, he'd have three full weeks to get healthy. Then, the Pats O-line went out and completely dominated the line of scrimmage from the first play of the game. Donald Thomas, Mankins' replacement, played the best game of his career, eliminating Rams' star rookie tackle Michael Brockers along with Ryan Wendell completely (Brockers wasn't mentioned once following the intro of the St. Louis defense at the start of the game) while contributing nicely to the rushing attack. Thomas did a lot of pulling as the Pats ran the ball to the right side a great deal and he routinely engaged linebackers and tossed them aside. It was a hugely encouraging day for Thomas, who's had his issues. And don't forget Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, both of whom were terrific, especially Vollmer, who controlled that right side almost effortlessly. He and Solder, who had shifted over to the right, made Vereen's TD possible, and he also cleared out the majority of the room Ridley needed on both his 41-yarder and his 30-yarder. As far as pass protection goes, Brady was hit/sacked/knocked down exactly zero times, rendering the Rams' supposed strong pass rush totally impotent. If the line can play this well without Mankins, just think of how good it could look when he's healthy.
Defensive Line: 5
How about this group? Although they never really tried that hard, the Rams didn't really establish the run and though there were a couple of big gainers, both came when the game was out of reach. And the pass rush/pressure was consistently good. It's true. There were some different wrinkles thrown in there blitz wise. At one point, Chandler Jones was even 10-12 yards back in coverage. But however you slice it, this was a mostly excellent day for the front four. Rob Ninkovich had still another great game, getting into the backfield a handful of times and really causing trouble for the Rams O-line from his strong side spot. He got to QB Sam Bradford once but was in his face a few more times too, much like most of his other performances this season. Ninkovich for defensive MVP. Jermaine Cunningham played well again, looking like more than just a pass rusher and handling his position as a sub defensive tackle just fine. But the majority of ups in this section go to Jones and Vince Wilfork, each of whom made one absolutely awesome play. Jones got a free run at Bradford in the third quarter thanks to a well-timed rush by Dont'a Hightower on the same side and as Bradford was spinning away, Jones lunged and cut him down with one arm for a 17 yard loss. It was an amazing display of athleticism, which has become commonplace for a guy who is surely a front runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year. And Wilfork sniffed out a swing pass to shifty Rams rookie Daryl Richardson in the fourth quarter, sped down the line, caught the quick back and pile drived him for a loss. To see a guy like Big Vince move so quickly, look so agile and quick makes watching these games even more fun than usual. A great play by a great player.
Hightower is a monster. He played well all day, was active and looked solid in coverage. But the hit he laid on Bradford that left the Rams QB rolling around on the turf writhing in pain was a big a blast as you may see all year. Hightower chased Bradford down, got to him just as the ball was released and planted him into the grass at Wembley as if he was planting a tree. Seriously, it was one of those hits that hurts just watching on TV. 270 pounds of granite. It should be a lot of fun watching this guy develop. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes were very good too, both overcoming some slight problems in coverage to register a combined 16 solo tackles. On one play, they came in on a crossover blitz over the middle and while Mayo was picked up, Spikes and Jones (who was freed up when the Rams right tackle moved to block Mayo) forced a very hurried throwaway by Bradford. Spikes seems to be given more responsibility by the week and he's still improving. We all know he's probably the hardest hitter of a very hard-hitting bunch and is excellent against the run. But his coverage skills look a little better too; it's no longer a must to get him off the field on obvious passing downs. He's become sturdier and more dependable by the week.
Defensive Backs: 3.5
Never mind the 50-yard TD pass from Bradford to Chris Givens on the fifth play of the game was the exact same play as the Sidney Rice game-winner from two weeks ago, right down to Tavon Wilson getting spun around on the exact same double move and allowing Givens to get by him at the exact same spot as Rice. For whatever reason, whether it was the pressure, the fact that the Pats's safeties were playing 30 yards off the line of scrimmage for long stretches after that or the fact that the Rams are horrendously coached (or at least were in this game), Bradford didn't really go downfield again until the fourth quarter and the game was out of hand. This was a major oversight on the part of the Rams coaching staff, but we're sure the Pats will take it. Alfonzo Dennard played probably the best of any Pats DB, not getting into too much trouble all day and making a nice, leaping grab on am underthrown duck by Bradford to secure the first pick. And Wilson took the second one, a late, desperation heave by backup QB Kellen Clemens, at the goal line, then made a nice, sportsmanlike move when he slid down at midfield with his team up by 38 points even though a TD would have been easy. Both of those rookies tackled well all day too, as did Nate Ebner. Marquise Cole looked capable with a couple of pass breakups and what appeared to be a forced fumble (overturned by replay) before leaving with a hamstring injury. Kyle Arrington suffered a head injury early on and Sterling Moore didn't look so good in his place, but the Pats got away with it. And don't forget Devin McCourty, who played safety again and made a valiant effort to make a play on the Givens TD before disappearing to the far reaches of Wembley as the absolute last line of defense for the rest of the day. By no means is this unit fixed. There are still glaring issues that the Rams didn't or weren't able to take advantage of. But the Pats got away with it on Sunday. And that's a whole lot better of a result than they've been getting.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 4.5
No one did anything too noteworthy on special teams mostly because they didn't have to. The Pats scored TDs almost every time they had the ball so our man Zoltan Mesko only had to kick twice and Stphen Gostkowski had just one chippy field goal try, which he made. And since the Rams only kicked off twice, the non-existent return game was more of an afterthought than usual. The Pats handled the elements - chilly conditions, lots of rain, especially in the second half - flawlessly.
The coaches had themselves a good day too, although when going up against Jeff Fisher (0-2, outscored 104-7 in his last two games against the Pats), Brian Schottenheimer and the rest of the Rams staff given how terrible they looked, any opposing coaching staff is going to look great. Bill Belichick hit almost every correct note, from waiting until last Friday to travel, to employing more blitzes in order to confuse the Rams and spark his defense, to remembering which sweatshirt to wear instead of having to change thanks to league mandate at halftime. And Josh McDaniels had his best day of the season. remembering that the Pats are at their best on offense when Brady has time and very clear sight lines from spread out looks and not forcing the run but letting it occur naturally out of the Pats successfully throwing the ball short and medium. The Rams are an up and coming team but they aren't as good as a lot of folks (hello self!) gave them credit for and Belichick, McDaniels and Co. took advantage. With the bye week, a chance for everyone to get healthy and their next three games against the Bills, Colts and Jets, the Pats have a chance to go on a serious roll here. You can bet Belichick is thinking the same thing.