LeGarrette Blount (29) rambles 43 yards for a first-quarter touchdown Sunday against the Rams. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)
FOXBORO — The Patriots can be grateful they were playing the Rams in the first game without Rob Gronkowski.
Tom Brady completed 33 of 46 passes for 269 yards, connected on a touchdown pass to Chris Hogan and recorded his 201st career win as a starting quarterback in a 26-10 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Gillette Stadium. Stephen Gostkowski added four field goals and LeGarrette Blount ran for a 43-yard touchdown Brady snapped a tie with Peyton Manning to establish a new standard for NFL quarterbacks.
But on a day when they were clearly the better team, their offense never looked like it was fully in sync against a Rams unit that gave up 555 yards and 49 points a week earlier in New Orleans.
It wasn’t the most glamorous or spectacular day by any means for Brady, who was going up against a defensive line that is regarded as one of the most physical in football. With Gronkowski going on IR Saturday, Julian Edelman caught eight passes on 12 targets for 101 yards.
But offensively, the woeful Rams played like a team making a cross-country trip, with little energy and no chance of putting up any kind of fight. The Patriots sacked rookie Jared Goff four times and held the Rams to 1-for-12 on third down.
The win puts the Patriots (10-2) three games up in the AFC East with four weeks left, as the Dolphins (7-5) lost in Baltimore Sunday.
The game started as expected, with the Patriots taking the opening drive of the game and marching 80 yards in eight plays.
On 4th-and-one at the Rams 43, Bill Belichick decided to go for it and was rewarded when LeGarrette Blount ran up to the right side of the line and then bounced outside. He had mostly green turf in front of him. He turned around a defensive back on his way to his 13th rushing touchdown of the season.
The Patriots made it 14-0 when Tom Brady hit Chris Hogan with a perfect back shoulder pass in the left corner of the north end zone from 14 yards out. The drive was set up when Malcolm Butler picked off a Jared Goff pass at the Rams 37 and returned it to the 30. It was New England’s first interception since Butler intercepted Landry Jones on the first drive of the game in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23.
Not everything was smooth, however, as the Patriots were building up their first-half lead. Namely, rookie Cyrus Jones continues to look extremely shaky handling all kicks.
The Rams won the toss and deferred. On the opening kick, Jones bobbled the ball four yards deep before taking it out to the 20, five yards shy of a touchback spot. Then on the Rams’ second punt of the day from Johnny Hekker, Jones muffed the punt and was saved by Patrick Chung, who raced in and recovered at New England’s 19.
Danny Amendola filled in for Jones on punt returns before getting slammed to the turf on a punt late in the third quarter. He got up hobbling, not able to put much weight on his right leg. He was seen by the medical staff and Bill Belichick on the sideline before hopping to his feet and making his way down the steps to the tunnel. The team later announced he was out with an ankle injury. Eric Rowe was also dinged up in the game with a hamstring injury.
The Patriots reached double figures in wins for the 14th straight season.
[For a full box score and stats, click here.]
On the Patriots’ second drive of the day, Brady hit Julian Edelman for 12 yards and first down. The Patriots seemed poised to march down the field and turn the game into a legitimate rout early but Joe Thuney was called for holding Dominique Easley. The Patriots punted.
The Patriots were driving down the field at the end of the first half but the drive stalled and they had to settle for a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal with 11 seconds left for a 17-0 halftime lead. The Patriots finished the first half with 12 first downs while the Rams had just one. Goff was just 4-of-11 in the first half for 27 yards while running back Todd Gurley was held to 11 yards on five carries in the first half.
The 2001 Patriots were then honored during an eight-minute ceremony, featuring highlights from the ’01 season and the postseason run that ended with Adam Vinatieri’s Super Bowl-winning field goal and Robert Kraft’s “We are all Patriots” speech in New Orleans. Kraft then took the podium to thank the players and fans. Four players from that team addressed the crowd.
Lawyer Milloy, Troy Brown, Drew Bledsoe and Tedy Bruschi all spoke, evoking cheers from the sellout crowd at Gillette. Brown’s speech was the most notable, including the line, “we took on the best team on turf and that made us the best [effing] team on earth.”
The Rams, who missed on their first seven third-down conversions on the day, managed to get on the scoreboard midway through the third quarter. Goff drove the Rams 29 yards in eight plays, capped by Greg Zuerlein’s 44-yard field goal.
The Patriots came right back, as Stephen Gostkowski capped a 49-yard, six-play drive with a 48-yard field goal, putting the Patriots up, 20-3, with 5:08 left in the third. The key play of the drive was a 32-yard connection from Tom Brady to Julian Edelman. Brady got pancaked by defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks but not before lofting a pass 32 yards down the right sideline for Julian Edelman. The Patriots leaped high in the air and fought Maurice Alexander for the ball at the LA 47.
On the first play of the next drive, Jabaal Sheard hit Goff as he was throwing, resulting in a wobbly pass that was picked off by a leaping Kyle Van Noy at the Rams 40. That drive also stalled, resulting in a 45-yard Gostkowski field goal, making it 23-3.
Bill Belichick spent much of his press conference Wednesday praising Rams punter Johnny Hekker as a “weapon” for Los Angeles. Hekker didn’t disappoint. He punted eight times for an average of 53.8 yards, including a 76-yarder in the fourth quarter that (along with a Patriots holding penalty) flipped field position from the Rams 15 to the Patriots 5.
Goff took advantage of blown coverage on 4th-and-11 in the first play after the two-minute warning to connect with Kenny Britt for 66 yards down the right sideline to the Patriots 1. After illegal substitution and encroachment penalties on the Patriots defense, Goff rolled to his right and hit Britt for the touchdown with 1:15 left.
The Patriots have an extra day of rest this week as they get ready for the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium next Monday night, Dec. 12.