FOXBOROUGH – There's an NFL aphorism you've all heard before that can be distilled into just three words: any given Sunday.
It means, of course, that any team has the ability to beat any other team each week, no matter the circumstances.
It's often proven to be true, but there are also some days when the expected happens. On paper, one team is clearly superior and expected to win with relative ease.
The latter is what we witnessed on this sparkling Sunday in Foxborough.
It was meant to be a day of celebrations. Most of the alumni from the 2001 Super Bowl team were in attendance for a weekend reunion, plus Tom Brady was looking to become the all-time winningest quarterback in NFL history.
"We're in the locker room with a walking legend," cornerback Malcolm Butler remarked afterward. "Most wins in NFL history and he still comes to work like he hasn't accomplished anything. I look up to that. Much respect and congratulations."
The New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 4, 2016.
Still, the game atmosphere had a generally flat, fait accompli feel to it from even before the start. At this point in the season, with the playoffs so close, it's difficult not to look ahead and have visions of first-round byes dancing in your head.
"Football starts after Thanksgiving," added Butler. "The stakes are higher, you know. Teams are trying to win [playoff] positions. We just keep playing, trying to get better."
Yes, if you're the Patriots, you're supposed to whip up on a rookie quarterback making his third NFL start… so, when Tom Brady and the offense marched 80 yards on the opening drive – more than half of that by LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run – you got the sense that the game's outcome was decided right then and there.
Perhaps there was some lingering disappointment in New England surrounding the loss of Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of 2016. However, while there wasn't much suspense about the outcome today, there were reasons aside from the final score for Patriots fans to go home satisfied.
For one thing, the defense more than did its part, creating turnovers for the second straight game after a 3-game drought in that category and pressuring Jared Goff, L.A.'s rookie passer. Goff was sacked four times and harassed all afternoon long. With the Rams trailing right off the bat and unable to produce much on the ground, the Patriots got aggressive on defense.
"When you're able to make a team fight with one hand, you're always going to have a leg up," defensive tackle Alan Branch mused. "When our offense is doing as well as they were, [the Rams] are trying to catch up and get the ball downfield. It gets everyone else [on defense] an opportunity to make plays."
"We were good on third down and we pressured well," observed defensive end Chris Long, who chipped in with a sack and three QB hits. "Coverage was good. It was a team effort. We stopped the run for the most part. There's going to be a lot to build on that's positive."
On special teams, heretofore struggling kicker Stephen Gostkowski seemed to get his confidence and accuracy back as well, nailing all four of his field goals and both extra points. Offensively, rookie Malcolm Mitchell continues to emerge as a receiving threat for Brady. His eight catches versus Los Angeles tied teammate Julian Edelman for the game high and also marked the third straight week that Mitchell has established a personal best in receptions.
The Patriots gave up a late touchdown, as they have a number of times this season, but it was irrelevant in the grand scheme.
"We knew that if we could get off to a good start, we could kind of control the game," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty explained. "You saw that from both sides of the ball – the offense going down there and scoring, then [the Rams] going three-and-out. I think that kind of led to how it played out, just coming out there early and being ready to go."
I hate to use the word "boring" to describe the victory, because every win in the NFL is difficult and important to achieve, but as McCourty indicated, the game was in New England's control the whole time. The fact that there was no suspense is a good thing.
"We're happy," declared cornerback Logan Ryan. "We played about 59 minutes. Obviously want to finish a little better than that, but most of the day, we were locked in. A lot of good things to learn from."
And with the final quarter of the schedule upcoming, the 10-2 Patriots can now focus in earnest in the coming weeks on securing one of the top two playoff spots in the AFC. Nothing boring about that.