For the Patriots, there was no better way to head into the bye week.
In what was their most complete perfomance of the season, the Patriots were able to put together an impressive effort in all three phases for all 60 minutes on Sunday: The defense suffocated the Rams -- St. Louis ran 13 plays in New England territory all afternoon, including just five in the first half. On offense, the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first five possessions, were 6-for-7 in the red zone and had at least 350 yards of total offense for the 17th straight game, breaking an NFL record set by the Rams in 1999-2000.
It resulted in a thunderous 45-7 victory Sunday in London, New England's most decisive victory of the 2012 campaign. (Click here for the recap.)
Small wonder that at the end of a three-week stretch in which the Patriots played three games in three time zones on two continents, coach Bill Belichick was proud of how his team acquitted itself against a Rams team that had already beaten the Cardinals and Seahawks -- two teams that defeated New England.
“I’m just really proud of the way our players performed,” said Belichick, who has now beaten Jeff Fisher’s teams by a combined score of 104-7 in their last two meetings. “You’ve got to them all the credit in the world. They’ve had a couple of tough weeks here with a Seattle trip and this trip and all that. But they didn’t let it affect them -- they just took care of business and played a good, solid football game.”
When it comes to numbers, there are plenty of similarities between the 2012 team and the 2011 roster. Really, if you sub Chandler Jones for Andre Carter, and Stevan Ridley for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the rest of the core on both sides of the ball is pretty much the same. Both teams had questionable numbers at this juncture when it comes to defending the pass. Both have occasionally used an overwhelming offense as their best defense.
Last season after eight games, the Patriots sat at 5-3. They won eight straight down the stretch to close out the regular season on the way to a first-round bye, home-field advantage through the playoffs and a berth in the Super Bowl. Midway through the 2012 season, these Patriots -- who look an awful lot like last year's edition -- also sit at 5-3.
Can this year’s team show the same finishing kick that was displayed by the 2011 team? We’ll find out over the next eight weeks.
“Coach always says football season doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving, and it’s not even Halloween yet. So there’s a lot of football that needs to be played,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “There’s a lot of teams that are really going to start making improvements, there are going to be teams that go the other way. So I hope we’re one of those teams that continues to get better.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday.
ROB GRONKOWSKI KNOWS HOW TO ENTERTAIN
While the Rams were able to bolster their edge rushers and corners this offseason, they still were suspect when it came to their outside linebackers and safeties. On Sunday the combination of Brady and Gronkowski was able to do a good job exploiting the holes in coverage. As a result, the tight end reached the end zone twice -- and had a pair of memorable spikes to celebrate.
While his best catch of the day came on New England’s second series of the game -- an over-the-shoulder grab that went for 25 yards and got the Patriots to the 1-yard line at the end of the first quarter -- his two touchdowns were also highlight-reel stuff, thanks mostly to his celebrations.
• It was clear early that the Rams had little answer for the big tight end -- that much was evident on his first touchdown of the afternoon, which came with the Patriots at the 7-yard line when the Rams somehow left Gronkowski in coverage with defensive tackle Michael Brockers. Brockers is a big guy himself (6-foot-6, 322 pounds), but was overwhelmed when Gronkowski spread his arms and caught the bullet from Brady. That set off an end zone celebration straight out of Buckingham Palace, as the big tight end stepped back and forth like a palace guard before delivering a spike.
‘‘I don’t know what the hell he was doing on that first one,’’ Brady said. ‘‘I was trying to get out of the way. He needs some work on that.’’
• His second came in garbage time -- specifically, the first drive of the fourth quarter -- for 14 yards to make the score 45-7. On that play, the tight end lined up on the right side next to tackle Sebastian Vollmer and went down the seam to the end zone untouched. When he made the catch on the goal line, there was no one within roughly five yards of him. That set off a gyroscopic dance routine.
“He’s a funny guy,” Wilfork said of Gronkowski. “I always say: If somebody doesn’t like him, that person has the problem, because he’s very likable. He’s just one of those guys that you can’t get mad at. Even if you do something wrong, you yell at him, but you feel bad yelling at him. He is always coming up with something. He always seems to find a way to come up big for this team. Once again, he did it tonight.”
In the end, it was a vintage Gronkowski performance against the Rams: The big tight end, who had struggled with injury over the last month, appeared to be no worse for wear. There were no issues when it came to gaining yards after the catch, and it certainly didn’t look like he was laboring at any point on the afternoon. He finished with eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns (it represented season highs in receptions and yardage).
It marked the 11th time in Gronkowski's career that he's hauled in at least a pair of touchdown passes. Only one other receiver in NFL history -- Jerry Rice -- could make such a claim by his third NFL season. (More on Gronkowski's historic career start here.)
TOM BRADY CAN TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OPPORTUNITIES
Last week against the Jets, the Patriots left a lot of points on the field in the first half, and it came back to hurt them, as they needed overtime to close out New York. On Sunday, there were no such worries, as New England scored on its first five possessions, didn’t punt until there were just over two minutes left in the third quarter and took advantage of some gifts that were offered by the Rams.
Those gifts included three defensive pass interference calls against St. Louis defensive back Bradley Fletcher in the first half (three of the 12 flags that went against the Rams, second most for any New England opponent on the season). Fletcher, who was working primarily in coverage against veteran receiver Deion Branch, was flagged twice on New England’s final offensive series of the second quarter and helped keep alive a Patriots drive that ended with a Stevan Ridley 1-yard plunge that made the game 28-7 just before halftime.
As for Brady, thanks in large part to the offensive line and a vintage Gronkowski performance, he was able to submit one of his more efficient lines of the season. Seven different receivers caught passes, and he went 23-for-35 for 304 yards with four touchdowns and zero picks. (For his part, it wasn’t as polished as the 22-for-36 for 340 yards and three touchdowns against the Broncos earlier this month, but not too far off.) That adds up to a passer rating of 131.1, his best of the season.
“That was a fun day for us offensively,” Brady said. “We played pretty well there in the first half and made some plays there in the third quarter. And the fourth quarter, we put it away. So, it was great to come on a trip like this and put everything into it.”
BRANDON LLOYD BOUNCED BACK NICELY
One week after finishing with one catch on eight targets in an overtime win over the Jets, the receiver had himself a fine afternoon against one of his old teams, coming away with a pair of catches that went for touchdowns against the Rams.
The first grab came midway through the first quarter, a 19-yard catch that ended up tying the game at 7-7. Lloyd was split wide, part of a three-receiver set to the right side that included Wes Welker and Deion Branch. The combination of routes and overload to that side appeared to confuse the young St. Louis defensive backs. As the ball was snapped, Lloyd dipped slightly toward the middle of the field before cutting back to the corner of the end zone. That’s where he hauled in a nicely thrown ball from Brady, beating rookie Janoris Jenkins and putting the capper on an eight-play, 78-yard drive that took 4:35.
The second came on the first offensive series of the second half, and also came at the expense of Jenkins. With the Patriots nine yards out of the end zone, Lloyd was split wide left and in man coverage against the rookie. Lloyd took a few quick steps in toward the middle of the field and just beat Jenkins to the spot. Brady hit him with the pass as he was sliding neatly into the end zone for his third touchdown of the year. Like the first catch, it was at the end of a sharp, efficient drive (six plays, 80 yards). The touchdown made the score 35-7 with 12:24 left in the third quarter.
“I have a lot of confidence in Brandon. He works his butt off -- he goes out there every day to practice and works hard,” Brady said. “He made some really great plays tonight, great job on the two touchdowns. Deion made plays, Wes made plays, Julian [Edelman] did, the running backs did. It was really a great team effort.”
THE OFFENSIVE LINE HIT A NEW HIGH ON SUNDAY
Sunday marked the first sack-free game of the season for Brady, who had all sorts of time to throw the ball -- impressive, considering the fact that the Patriots were facing one of the better young pass-rushing duos in the NFC in Robert Quinn (seven sacks entering Sunday’s game) and Chris Long (three sacks). The Rams didn’t even register a quarterback hit, while Brady spent much of the afternoon carving up the St. Louis secondary.
“I think our whole offensive line did a good job,” Belichick said. “Tom did a good job of stepping up in the pocket, too. I mean, there were plenty of times where they were running past him, but he was able to slide up into the pocket and that was the result of Donald [Thomas] and [Ryan Wendell] and Dan [Connolly] giving us a pocket that he could step up into. So it’s good teamwork all the way around, but certainly Sebastian [Vollmer] and Nate [Solder] saw two good edge rushers today.”
VINCE WILFORK TURNED IN ONE OF THE MORE REMARKABLE DEFENSIVE PLAYS OF THE YEAR
It’s not going to be on as many highlight reels as his interceptions, but the athleticism and smarts displayed by Wilfork on one second-quarter pass play were pretty impressive.
On the Rams’ first drive of the second quarter, they were sitting with a second-and-11 at their own 33-yard line. Quarterback Sam Bradford dropped back and hit running back Daryl Richardson with a short pass to the right side. But waiting for him was ... Vince Wilfork? It appeared the big defensive lineman was able to adroitly drop into coverage on the play, read it perfectly, and shove Richardson out of bounds for a 4-yard loss. Two plays later, St. Louis was forced to punt.
It was a terrific defensive effort for the defensive lineman, who was able to gum up the middle nicely for the New England defense all afternoon.
“You know what? That was just an instinct play. I said to myself: ‘If this guy does this, I’m going to do this.’ Plain and simple. I saw the offensive lineman, I saw the running back and I ran with him,” recalled Wilfork after the game. “Just watching film and playing a lot of football, you kind of get an idea of some of the plays people try to do, some tendencies you may pick up. That was one of the things I picked up on. But I already had in my mind if that happened what I was going to do. I reacted well.”
Wilfork, who was sharing the postgame podium with Jerod Mayo, turned to the linebacker.
“I learn a lot from these guys,” he said with a smile. “I learned a little something, how they check receivers and backs and stuff, so I had a chance to showcase it a little bit today.”
THE PATRIOTS INDUCTED STEVEN JACKSON INTO AN EXCLUSIVE CLUB
While the Patriots pass defense has taken plenty of shots over the course of the first eight games of the season, New England has been very good when it comes to stopping the run, and that certainly was the case Sunday against St. Louis.
Despite the fact that the Rams were able to average 4.7 yards per carry as a team -- the first time in a month the Patriots allowed more than four yards per carry -- New England was able to corral Jackson for much of the afternoon, limiting him to 23 yards on seven carries. (The Rams actually were able to get better efforts statistically from Daryl Richardson, who had 53 yards on seven rushes, and Isaiah Pead, who had three rushes for 32 yards. However, most of their yards weren't of much significance on the afternoon.)
As for Jackson, he’s the latest in what has become a long line of running backs this season who haven’t been able to get started against the Patriots, joining Chris Johnson (11 carries, four yards), Fred Jackson (13 carries, 29 yards), Willis McGahee, (14 carries, 51 yards) and Marshawn Lynch (15 carries, 41 yards) as running backs who have been held below their season averages against New England.
STEVAN RIDLEY HAS HELPED BRING BALANCE TO THE OFFENSE
In what might have been his best performance of the season, running back Stevan Ridley finished with 15 carries for 127 yards (for a gaudy 8.5 yards per carry average) and a touchdown.
The LSU product was at his best in the third quarter when he had 88 yards, including runs of 30 and 41 yards. The 41-yarder (a career-long for Ridley) was one of the best-executed plays of the year for the Patriots offense. It featured some great blocking by the New England offensive line, a fantastic display of field vision by Ridley and a really nice burst into the secondary by the running back.
Shane Vereen (22 rushing yards, 17 receiving yards) and Danny Woodhead (3 rushing yards, 56 receiving yards) also chipped in to help shake things up, with Vereen adding a 1-yard touchdown run early in the second and Woodhead coming away with an impressive 24-yard catch in the first quarter that was right out of the Kevin Faulk School of Pass Catching.
“All of our backs have been productive this year,” Belichick said. “They really have, including [Brandon] Bolden, who wasn’t here today. But we’ve gotten good production from all those guys. We’re confident when any of them are in the game. We have different groups and packages and that type thing for them. But whichever guy’s in there, we have a lot of confidence in. They’ve all been good for us.”
For Ridley, it was the fifth 100-yard game of his career, and fourth of the 2012 season. Ridley, who has a total of 716 rushing yards through eight games this season, is on pace to total 1,432 rushing yards, which would give him the 15th 1,000-yard rushing season in Patriots history and make him the 12th Patriots player to reach 1,000 yards rushing.
THE PATRIOTS PASS DEFENSE SHOOK OFF A BAD START
On the first drive of the game for the Rams, there was a sad sense of deja vu for the Patriots secondary. With St. Louis sitting on first-and-10 at the 50, Bradford dropped back and hit speedy wide receiver Chris Givens on a 50-yard touchdown pass down the middle that was almost identical to the deep ball that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson delivered two weeks ago to beat the Patriots, right down to the fact that it was rookie defensive back Tavon Wilson who was beaten on both occasions.
“I think early in the season, that kills us, giving up a big play. Then we put our heads down, give up another one,” Devin McCourty said. “I thought we did a good job today of putting that play past us, then playing great defense, after that. I think that’s what we have to focus on -- sometimes we are going to make some plays. We’ve just got to keep playing, make our own plays.”
But that was the low point for the New England pass defense, which didn’t give up any other pass plays of 20-plus yards over the first two quarters. (The Rams ended up with four pass plays of 20 yards or more, but the other three were of no consequence, coming when the Patriots had already stretched their lead to at least 31 points.) Bradford and backup Kellen Clemens finished with 244 passing yards, the lowest yardage total for an opposing quarterback since Arizona’s Kevin Kolb had 140 passing yards in Week 2.
In truth, the secondary wasn’t that bad. Against a St. Louis offense that was looking to throw the ball as early as the second quarter in an attempt to try to match the New England offense, the Patriots were equal to the task. (Granted, Givens, Lance Kendricks, Daryl Richardson and Brandon Gibson won’t ever be compared to the Greatest Show on Turf, but for New England, it’s a good start.) Without Kyle Arrington -- who departed with a head injury in the first half -- the Patriots secondary utilized Sterling Moore and Alfonzo Dennard at corner and McCourty at safety. Wilson and Dennard came away with interceptions.
The picks were nice, but the defensive highlight of the afternoon for the Patriots pass defense came with just under four minutes left in the third quarter when defensive end Chandler Jones came in unblocked, swooping in and tripping up Bradford with one swipe. It was a terrifically athletic play for the rookie, who picked up his sixth sack of the season and first of the game for New England.
ENGLAND AGREES WITH THE PATRIOTS
New England’s two trips to Old England have resulted in a combined 80-14 score in favor for the Patriots. While the footing at Wembley wasn’t ideal -- wide receiver Wes Welker appeared to get his foot stuck at one point and narrowly avoid injury -- it certainly appeared that the team enjoyed the oddly surreal environment that included the wave, cheering at odd moments and a crowd with a sea of different NFL jerseys.
“They were cheering the entire game -- it’s exciting to come here. I came over three years ago, [and] they cheered the entire game, and I felt that again today,” Jerod Mayo said. “There are great fans out here. I saw all sorts of jerseys out there, Dolphins jerseys, Jets jerseys.
“This is a happy place.”
It was also nice to play on natural grass for a change, according to Belichick.
“Playing on grass is always good. You know we play most of our games on turf, so it was good to see those jerseys get a little dirty and grass stained and get muddied and all that,” Belichick said with a smile. “Got a good feeling there about watching football and guys picking out dirt around their facemasks and stuff like that.
“We don’t see a lot of that back in the States. We see grass fields down in Florida, and Tampa and Miami, and Jacksonville and it’s all pretty Forida grass. This is kind of a little throwback here in the mud in the rain. So was a good old-fashioned football game. I think our guys liked it. It looked like Gronk liked it.”