St. Louis, Mo. - Starring straight into the face of adversity against the St. Louis Rams Sunday, the New England Patriots answered the call with a resounding 40-22 win. Considering how many things appeared to be stacked against them, both leading up to and then during the game, it may have been the Patriots most impressive win of the season.
Never mind the Patriots had their 18-game regular season winning streak snapped last week. Never mind that loss came in an embarrassing fashion, with the Pittsburgh Steelers dominating every phase of a 34-20 win. Never mind the Patriots entered Sunday's contest with out both starting cornerbacks. Try to forget cornerback Asante Samuel - an injury replacement himself - left the game on the Patriots second defensive play and didn't return until the fourth quarter. Don't bother mentioning the Patriots went with a defensive secondary of Randall "Blue" Gay, Earthwind Moreland and Troy Brown - a rookie, a player signed from the practice squad the day before the game and a wide receiver - at cornerback for much of the game.
None of it seemed to be of any consequence. The Patriots - seemingly one by one - took their turns stepping up and making big plays when they needed to.
"I wouldn't know where to start," head coach Bill Belichick said. "There are so many guys who stepped up and made big plays and came through for us. It's probably as complete of a team victory as I've ever been around.
"We got some big plays from all three groups. We got big plays from so many different people out there. Everybody just went out there and fought until the end. We played with some pain, we played through some injuries. Key guys were at different positions. But they just hung in there and kept fighting. I'm really proud of our football team. These players really stepped up and played like we know they can play today. All the credit goes to them, they did a heck of a job."
The accolades start with wide receiver Troy Brown, who not only caught three passes on offense, but played admirably when forced into action as the team's nickel back. Without Samuel, the Patriots were forced to go with Moreland and Gay at cornerback, leavign the team one defensive back short in passing situations. That job went to Brown and rookie safety Dexter Reid, who both saw time as extra defensive backs in the nickel and dime packages.
Brown, who Belichick said prepared "enough to be ready" during the week, finished with three tackles and even defended a pass in his first regular season action as a defensive player.
"I just want to play football," said Brown, who admitted he was a little winded. "Whenever I can get on the field. I just like playing ball. Whatever it is, whatever I'm asked to do, I'm going to do it. I had to go out there and hold my own out there. I didn't want to put the defense in a bad situation."
The play of Moreland and Gay was also opportune, especially considering the opponent. St. Louis wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt - part of the high-powered Rams passing attack that entered the game sixth in the NFL in total offense (375.4 yards per game) and fifth in passing yards (264.1) - were held in check just enough by the young Patriots cornerbacks to produce a win.
The coaching staff prepared for such a scenario, but certainly couldn't have counted on it. Moreland was signed off the practice squad to the active roster on Saturday. Gay, who made one start at safety in Week 7 against the New York Jets, was already making his first career start Sunday at cornerback.
"When Asante [Samuel] went down really early, someone else had to step up," Gay said. "That's just the attitude we have. No matter who is in there, you have to step up no matter what. You're a rookie, a free agent, anything - if you're on the field, you have to step up and play. That's what everybody is trying to do. Coach had a good game plan in, and we just executed it well."
The Patriots didn't stop there - mixing up coverages by using starting strong safety Rodney Harrison in the slot, moving linebacker Don Davis to safety on a handful or plays, or shifting linebacker Roman Phifer out wide in a one-on-one matchup with Rams' running back Marshall Faulk. It was a combination of clever strategy and personnel packages by the coaching staff.
"You have to be creative," Harrison said. "Our coaches did a wonderful job. More so than that, just preparation. Because we prepare - our coaches do a great job of lining guys up in different positions just in case. Preparing them, just in case something happens."
Plenty of other Patriots made plays when they counted as well. Long snapper Lonie Paxton recovered a muffed punt by the Rams' Shaun McDonald. Willie McGinest sacked Marc Bulger from behind to cause a fumble. Roman Phifer intercepted Bulger - on a pass tipped by McGinest - which led to a Corey Dillon touchdown four plays later. Four other players - Tedy Bruschi, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green - each recorded a sack.
The focus of the Patriots defense - despite its constant state of flux - was to limit the big plays of the St. Louis offense and keep them from converting long drives into points. They were successful at both. Although the Rams finished with 340 total yards and 21 first downs, they converted that into only 15 points by the offense.
"Everyone had us picked to lose," Harrison said. "I think really, from a confidence standpoint, for some of our younger players this game was big. Because we hadn't lost. Sometimes, you have a tendency to get comfortable to think it's going to happen every time. You're going to win every game. But there's a lot of hard work and preparation that goes into a ball game, and to come out here and beat a team that everyone had picked us to lose against, and to perform and hold them to 15 points from a defensive standpoint, that was huge for us."
The ability to step up and contribute wasn't limited to the defense. Corey Dillon returned from a one-week absence to record his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season, rushing 25 times for 112 yards and a touchdown. David Givens continued his solid play, catching five passes for 100 yards, including several key first downs. The offensive line was solid, limiting the Rams to two sacks while paving the way towards 147 total yards rushing.
"That's what a team is about," Belichick said. "Everybody being prepared and doing their job and when you get called upon, step up there and come through. I think it just goes across the board tonight. We got a lot of big plays from a lot of people."
On Sunday, it all added up. In a game when so much was perceived to be against the Patriots, the performance was even more impressive.
"It's a total team effort, as well as coaching," Harrison said. "A couple of the past weeks, we could have played better, we could have coached better. To come out here and put it all together in one game, that's what we've been aiming for. It was a big victory for us."