Technically, the Rams have a home game on Sunday, but it is in name only as St. Louis “hosts” the New England Patriots in London for a game at Wembley Stadium, as part of the NFL’s ongoing UK series. The Rams are designated as the home team, but they have never played in Wembley, where at least the Patriots have made the trip before when they beat the Buccaneers 35-7 in 2009.
“The time change, the travel — that’s certainly different than most normal games,” Pats head coach Bill Belichick said, “but it’s not anything we haven’t dealt with before. We’ve traveled to the West Coast. We’re just going the other direction. Hopefully, we’ll be able to deal with it.”
The Patriots are in first place in their division, but unlike in years past, they are 4-3, only one game over 0.500, and have the entire AFC East breathing down their necks within one game of first place. A loss would drop them to 0.500, something no one in New England wants to see happen.
“There are a lot of things we need to work on,” Belichick said. And while that’s true, it starts with their defense. They’ve blown leads the last two weeks as their secondary has looked suspect.
Two weeks ago, they gave up a 13-point fourth quarter lead in Seattle as rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw two TD passes in the final seven and a half minutes for the win. Then last week, they gave up a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the Jets before recovering to force overtime with a 43-yard field goal as time expired, and then pulling out the win in OT.
In the last two games, Mark Sanchez passed for over 300 yards, and Wilson passed for 293 yards and 3 TDs. New England’s starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory have both been injured, and the secondary has struggled without them. The Patriots are ranked 29th in the league in pass defense, and are giving up 290 yards per game through the air. Their run defense has been considerably better, ranking 8th and only giving up 86 yards per game, but they’ve got to do a better job against the pass.
“We’ll go back, see what we can improve,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said last week. “It’s all about getting better from here.”
The secondary’s problems could be good news for Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who hasn’t exactly been setting the league on fire this year. The Rams have the 24th best passing offense in the league, and Bradford is 21st in passer efficiency with 7 TDs and 6 INTs.
On the other side of the ball, the Rams defense has been much improved this year under Jeff Fisher but struggled last week against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, as Rodgers was nearly perfect finishing 30 of 37 (81 percent) for 342 yards and 3 TDs. Tom Brady must be licking his lips looking at footage from last week’s Rams game.
Brady will be without one of his favorite targets as Aaron Hernandez didn’t make the trip to the UK for the game. That will put more of the onus on Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, but they are more than up to the task. After a slow first couple of weeks, Welker is leading the league with 688 receiving yards and is second in receptions with 54, well on pace for another 110 catch season.
There have been 25 receiving seasons with at least 110 catches, and Welker owns four of them. No other receiver in NFL history has done it more than twice. He also holds two of the 7 seasons in NFL history of 120 catches or more.
The Patriots have also been running the ball much better than in years past, as they have the 5th ranking rushing offense to go with their 5th ranked passing offense. Stevan Ridley has 589 yards on the ground, averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per carry, and Brandon Bolden has 234 yards and is averaging 5.4. Ridley is 7th in the league in rushing, and the Patriots running game is better than at any time in recent memory.
The Patriots problems in their secondary could make this game closer than it should be, and look for Sam Bradford to have one of his best games of the season, but ultimately the top ranked Patriots offense figures to be too much for the Rams defense.
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