Los Angeles — City of Angels, City of Show Business. It was therefore only fitting that the New England Patriots decided to perform their greatest hits on Thursday night. They played all of their 2020 classics from starting slowly, to missing tackles, to turning the ball over. It was truly a spectacle. The fans in the stands went crazy.
In all seriousness, though, the Patriots’ 24-3 defeat against the Los Angeles Rams was a debacle from start to finish and as such as perfect encapsulation of their season up until this point. It truly was a comedy of errors that left only the opponent laughing in the end.
The show began on the opening series, with the Rams starting the game on offense and driving right down the field in just six plays — the first two of which a 25-yard pass and a 35-yard run. Those two chunk gains set up the contest’s first touchdown; Jared Goff leapt over the line of scrimmage to cross the plane on a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Down 7-0, the Patriots found themselves in an early hole. Been there, done that.
Starting slowly has been one of their main issues this year, after all.
Through 13 games, the Patriots are allowing an average of 5.1 points in the first quarter of their games. While that is still good enough for 16th in the NFL, adding the offense to the equation shows just how bad the team has been early on: New England is averaging 2.2 points on offense in the first 15 minutes — 32nd in football and a clear manifestation of the team’s inability to build an early rhythm off which to work later on during the game.
That has not always been the case, though. Just last year, for example, and despite the Patriots’ offense also struggling mightily at times, the team ranked second (7.1) and third (3.1) in the respective categories. One season later, it is arguably the worst first quarter team in football.
That alone does not make a recipe for disaster, though. One also has to add a leaky run defense with a dash of bad tackling. Both of those were on display extensively in the first quarter, with outside linebacker John Simon and Anfernee Jennings standing out in particular. They were not the only culprits, though, as the entire unit failed to fill its gaps versus the run and set a strong edge. The Rams took advantage of that time and again.
At the end of the day, the home team finished with 187 rushing yards on 35 carries — an average of 5.3 yards per attempt. After playing some strong run defense the last five weeks, New England reverted back to its disastrous early-season levels.
The Patriots’ usually productive run offense, meanwhile, had its fair share of issues as well versus one of the best defenses in the NFL. With the game getting out of hand early, the team finished with 29 rushing attempts for just 107 yards. 10 of those yards came on pass plays, with Cam Newton scrambling to get away from a relentless pass rush.
“We just have to be better, collectively,” the Patriots’ quarterback said after a game that saw him get benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Jarrett Stidham. “I think we didn’t play a good style or brand of football tonight and they did. They made more plays than us, so it led to them winning.”
The problem for New England was not necessarily an inability to establish a presence on the ground, however, but the fact that the team went back to the well time and again versus an opponent able to stack the box and usually limit the damage. This predictable and inconsistent approach hurt the Patriots repeatedly this year by forcing them to play from behind the sticks and a style they are simply not suited to play. Thursday night was no exception.
They did add some variety to the run-run-pass-punt sequence from time to time, but overall too many of their possessions went somewhat like that. All in all, seven of New England’s twelve series came to an end after just three offensive plays.
As if the slow start, bad run defense and unimaginative offense were not enough already, the Patriots also pulled another one of their classics out of the proverbial hat: turnovers.
New England did improve quite a bit when it comes to offensive ball security over the last few weeks, giving the football away just two times over the five contests leading into Week 14. The problem, however, remained: the 2020 Patriots have almost no room for error, and every turnover — no matter if a fumble, interception or unsuccessful fourth down try — immensely hurts the team’s chances to play competitive football.
The game against the Rams was another example of that. Following an interception by undrafted rookie cornerback Myles Bryant, New England set up shop at the Los Angeles 32-yards line before advancing all the way into the red zone. At that point, however, Cam Newton threw an interception on a screen pass that broke down because of the rush getting to him quickly and Damien Harris not finding his position fast enough.
The intercepted ball was returned 79 yards for an L.A. touchdown — a swing of at least 10 points, resulting in a negative EPA of 11.2. It was the biggest play of the game in that regard.
That turnover was not the only one for the Patriots, at least when also considering those happening on downs. On the drive following the pick-six, after all, the offense marched down the field for its best series of the day before eventually stalling at the Los Angeles 2-yard line: Newton was tackled for a loss on an option run on 4th-and-goal. Two red zone trips, zero points.
For a team with a razor-thin margin for error, as mentioned above, negative plays like those two are a killer. They already were earlier during the year as New England slid to 2-5, and they were again on Thursday versus the Rams.
“It’s very disappointing,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater about the Patriots’ outing. “We didn’t do anything well enough to give ourselves a chance to win. It’s just disappointing. There’s no blame to place or anything like that, it’s just tipping your hat to the Rams: they came out here and outplayed us pretty much for the entirety of the game.”
At the end of the day, the Rams were able to get some revenge for their Super Bowl loss against the Patriots two years back. They also all but ended New England’s hopes of eventually sneaking into the postseason.
So, where does the team go from here? For head coach Bill Belichick, the answer is a simple one: back to work.
“We’ll take it one game at a time and get ready for our next game,” he said. “That’s what we do every week, so no reason to do it any differently.”
The next show comes on Sunday in Miami. Let’s see if the Patriots are able to unveil some new material instead of the tiresome classics they performed in Los Angeles.