A week before the team's bye, the Patriots (4-3) are in London to take on the Rams (3-4) Sunday at historic Wembley Stadium. New England is no stranger to old England, having had its way on the pitch with Tampa Bay in a blowout victory back in 2009. But very little has come easy to Bill Belichick's team this season, and Jeff Fisher as the formerly lowly Rams fighting hard in his first season in St. Louis. Will the Patriots continue to struggle against the NFC West? Can Tom Brady and Co. put the bed some of lackluster efforts of the first half of the season with a momentum-fueling performance heading into the off week? Is the defense primed to improve on its big plays allowed against a somewhat limited Rams passing attack? There are plenty of interesting angles to this matchup beyond the simple fact that it's being played outside the U.S. and across the pond. So as the Patriots themselves try to adjust their bodies to British time, sit back, relax and enjoy this rare international Rams Edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Edgy defense – The old cliché about defense in all sports was that you wanted to be strong up the middle. That's certainly changed a bit in the pass-happy modern NFL. And the Rams seem to have adjusted with the times. St. Louis' 10th-ranked defense this season is buoyed by a lot of talent on the edges. The unit posses a pretty impressive pass rush led by arguably the best young defensive end duo in the game in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. The pair has combined for 11 sacks this season, including seven for the budding second-year star Quinn. That gives St. Louis the seventh best unit in terms of sacks per pass play in the NFL. The work on the edge of the secondary isn't too shabby either. The Rams invested in veteran cornerback Cortland Finnegan to bring an established presence to the secondary. Though known more for his at times questionable play and on-field scuffles, Finnegan is also a pretty proven cover man. He moves into the slot in their sub packages, so he'll see a lot of Wes Welker on the afternoon. That should be a pretty feisty matchup. On the other side St. Louis rolled the dice on talented but troubled rookie corner Janoris Jenkins. He was considered maybe the best cover guy in the draft last spring, but his stock was decimated by off-field concerns. He's struggled a bit of late, but has the pure talent to make plays in the passing game and frustrate any receiver. With guys like defensive lineman Michael Brockers and linebacker James Laurinaitis the Rams have their share of talent up the middle, but it's the edge of the team's defense that could cause the most problems for the Patriots and their passing game. If St. Louis' edge players get things going early in London it could be another tough day for the New England passing attack.
2. Even bigger play problem – The Patriots secondary has allowed 39 plays of 20 or more yards, including six last week against the Jets underwhelming passing attack. The issue has been the talk of the team, including plenty of chatter about it from Bill Belichick and his players. Injuries have been a part of the problem. With Patrick Chung out again after reportedly not even making the trip and Steve Gregory having missed a month of action, the unsettled safety spot is an issue that will continue this week. The Rams don't have the most impressive passing attack – of course the same was said of the Seahawks and Jets in recent weeks – but they have been able to get the ball down the field of late. Rookie receiver Chris Givens has just 10 catches on the year, but is averaging 27 yards a reception thanks to a catch of 50 yards or more in each of St. Louis' last four games. That has to scare the spotted dick out of the Patriots defensive backs who are going to take the field in England. Devin McCourty moved to safety last week and he'll likely fill that role again next to rookie Tavon Wilson. Alfonzo Dennard has shown some rookie spunk at corner, while the other side will likely be manned by much-maligned veteran Kyle Arrington. St. Louis has the 24th ranked passing attack and top target Danny Amendola remains questionable (I would be surprised if he played) with a shoulder injury. But Givens' recent success on big plays has to be noted. The only way the Rams probably have a chance to win is by hitting some big pass plays. But those have come so frequently of late against just about any team and any quarterback it's not the usual low-percentage possibility it normally would be considered.
3. My guy vs. BB's guy – I was all in as far as wanting the Patriots to do whatever it took in the 2011 NFL Draft to get Quinn. I thought he was the dynamic edge presence that the New England defense desperately needed and would end up a star pass rusher. Belichick didn't see the need, or at the very least see the value in trading up for the North Carolina star. Instead he stayed put at No. 17 in the first round and took tackle Nate Solder. Solder has had a pretty good season taking over for Matt Light protecting Brady's blindside. He'll be tested yet again on Sunday, this time in a down-by-down battle with Quinn. Two long, lean, athletic players on both sides of the ball going at it to prove who is the better sophomore. I know the Patriots ended up with Chandler Jones this year and seem happy with the way things turned out, but I still wonder what could have been and what Quinn may become for the Rams. It will be fun to see him against Solder on Sunday. If Solder wins, it will go a long way toward helping New England get the job done. If Quinn has a big, disruptive game it will throw Brady off and could be a first step toward a Rams upset. This is a major battle within the battle. And, being the guy that I am, if Quinn gets the best of Solder you might just hear me utter the words "I told you so" next week on PFW in Progress radio. Stay tuned.
4. I'm sorry, Mr. Jackson – Steven Jackson is another guy I hoped would become a Patriot way back when. But New England traded for Corey Dillon and the Rams took Jackson in the first round. He's gone on to have a great career and is approaching 10,000 yards. He's been a yearly 1,000-yard rusher and also a guy who's made plays out of the backfield. But he's not having the best of years in 2012. He was limited by injury early on and is averaging just 3.8 yards a carry for the season with only one touchdown. He's been pretty consistent in trying to balance out the offense for Bradford, but has yet to have a breakout performance. That shouldn't change this week behind a suspect Rams offensive line that will have to deal with a Patriots front seven that has been very good all season. New England's rush defense now ranks fifth in the league, while St. Louis' rushing attack is a very average 15th. Vince Wilfork has been great yet again, while Kyle Love probably doesn't get enough credit. So Jackson, and his productive rookie understudy Daryl Richardson (5.1 avg. on 55 carries) could find it tough going on the usually soft, slow natural grass surface at Wembley. The one concern for New England fans might be the health of the team's linebackers. Jerod Mayo is dealing with an elbow injury suffered against New York, and was sick enough to miss a day of practice last week. Dont'a Hightower continues to be limited by a hamstring issue, though he did play the bulk of the second half against the Jets. If those injuries aren't an issue, and given the obvious limitations of the Rams passing attack, I don't see the Patriots having much trouble keeping the St. Louis ground game in check.
5. Ben there, done that – Though there has been a lot of roster turnover since 2009, the Patriots organization has been through this unique London experience before. That should make for overall smooth sailing in what could otherwise be a bumpy trip across the pond. The Rams spent the entire week in England, and that could give the game a vacation-like feel to them. New England stuck to its usual travel schedule for long road trips and got its game preparation work done before flying out. I think that's a good thing for the Patriots. Some key players – such as Brady and Wes Welker are very much acquainted with the Wembley environment that includes a more soccer-like crowd that sings songs, chants, cheers and makes noise at a variety of unique times. That might be something that could catch Bradford and the Rams off guard. Sure the Patriots have a lot of young players who could potentially get caught up in the idea of the London game more than just simply doing their weekly job, but I doubt the New England coaches and veteran players will allow that to happen. Big Ben might be a touristy target for the Rams players, but the Patriots may take a more Ben-there, done-that attitude.
6. Formula for defeat? – Twice before this season the Patriots have taken on an opponent from the NFC West with a strong defense and a limited offense. Each of those two contests turned out to be surprise losses for the defending AFC champions. The Rams are a tough, young, defensive-led team that struggles to score points. They very much fit the mold of the teams that have given the Patriots trouble so far in 2012. New England doesn't have a lot of experience dealing with a lot of the Rams players, which sometimes leads to mistakes. The Rams have scored more than 20 points just once in 2012. The Patriots have scored 20 points or less just once. It would be stunning to see the Patriots lose a third straight game to an NFC West opponent, but the Rams very much look like their division brethren and that should put New England on upset alert.
The Rams are certainly not a pushover, especially in this NFL season against this Patriots team. They have the defense to give New England problems, not just against the pass but having allowed a total of just 151 yards on the ground in the last three games combined. So the Patriots will have to very much work to earn what they get on this midseason vacation to England. But having said that, and all the points above, I'm sticking with the simple idea that the Patriots are the better football team in this matchup, and a better team than they've shown for much of the season. I like Bradford as a quarterback, but I don't see him marching up and down the field against the Patriots. Sure he'll likely hit a few big plays, but I don't see it being close enough for that to matter. I think the Patriots offense will be in tune to hit the bye with some momentum and will be very much up for this challenge. Assuming Brady doesn't get rattled by the pass rush, look for the Patriots to move the ball through the air even without Aaron Hernandez. Though technically a road game, the crowd of UK Patriots fans will very much be on New England's side. I see Brady putting up a 300-yard day and look for the Patriots own front to make life tough on Bradford. I think the Patriots will finally get off to a hot start on offense and build a lead that will help control the game the rest of the way. I'm stubborn and learn my lessons the hard way, but I see the Patriots getting the job done in a 27-13 victory. Belichick's team will control the game throughout and head into the bye week feeling better about itself than has been the case for much of the first half of the season.