The chances were there, but New England did not take advantage of them as the Patriots fell 24-17 to St. Louis Sunday night.
The Patriots (5-5) held the league's highest-scoring offense to a touchdown less than its average. Despite allowing nearly 500 yards of offense, New England's defense produced three turnovers, including an interception return for a touchdown. Still, it wasn't enough, especially since the Rams scored 17 points off of three Patriots turnovers.
"We just missed too many opportunities tonight," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "The game went about the way we really expected it to. It was a tough, hard fought game. Both sides made some plays, but in the end, we just didn't make enough of them. That's real disappointing."
The turning point in the game came at the close of the second quarter. Leading 10-7, the Patriots caught a break when Jeff Wilkins 42-yard field goal attempt went wide right. New England responded by driving 65 yards to the St. Louis 4-yard line with 2:22 left in the half. With all the momentum on its side, the offense appeared ready to put the team up 10 going into halftime.
"I thought we had the end of the second quarter set up just the way we wanted it," Belichick said. "We had run the clock down and we were headed to the two-minute warning. If we run another play or two, no matter what happens, whether we score [a touchdown] or kick a field goal, there wasn't going to be much time on the clock."
Unfortunately things didn't work out that way. On first-and-goal, Antowain Smith was stripped after a 1-yard gain by London Fletcher, and the ball was recovered by cornerback Aeneas Williams. The play proved to be the most critical juncture of the night when the Rams marched 97 yards on an eight-play drive capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to Marshall Faulk.
Instead of going into the break with what could have been a 10-point lead, New England was down 14-10.
"We knew we could play with those guys, but we left a lot on the field," said cornerback Otis Smith, who led the defense with 10 tackles and two passes defensed. "We had opportunities we just didn't capitalize on. The one that hurt us was the 97-yard drive. That gave them the momentum. They have a lot of guys out there and they did a great job of spreading it around."
The Rams certainly did spread the offense around. Kurt Warner passed for 401 yards and completed seven passes each to Isaac Bruce (130 yards), Torry Holt (89 yards, 1 touchdown) and Faulk (70 yards, 1 touchdown). Ricky Proehl added five catches for 62 yards.
Even with the high-powered passing game working for St. Louis, the Patriots defense created several opportunities. Terrell Buckleyreturned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 1:55 to go in the first quarter. Warner was looking for Bruce over the middle, but Proehl ran the wrong route and crossed Bruce up, allowing the ball to go between the receivers to Buckley, who returned an interception for a touchdown against Warner last season while with Denver.
The defense wasn't done there. On the next St. Louis possession, Tedy Bruschi intercepted a Warner pass to give New England the ball at the Rams 40. The offense could only muster a field goal, and an opportunity went by the boards.
Even with the big blow suffered at the end of the first half, the defense came back in the start of the second half. Defensive tackle Riddick Parker recovered a Warner fumble at the St. Louis 45-yard line midway through the third quarter, providing yet another golden opportunity.
The momentum was indeed momentary. Tom Brady tried to hit Troy Brown on a short pass over the middle on the very next play, but the ball went to Fletcher, who returned it 18 yards to the Patriots 42. The turnover resulted in a 35-yard field goal by Wilkins, which put the Patriots in a 17-10 hole.
St. Louis shut the Patriots down with a three-and-out series and then had an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave the Rams a 24-10 lead with less the 11 minutes in the game. After the Rams went up 24-10, the Patriots responded with a touchdown of their own. Brady, who finished 19-of-27 for 185 yards, led a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive. On the drive he completed passes to Brown (8 catches, 91 yards), David Patten, Charles Johnson and Kevin Faulk before finding Patten again for a 10-yard touchdown to make the score 24-17 with 7:46 left.
St. Louis was able to run out the rest of the clock on its ensuing possession, tampering any thoughts of a Patriots rally. The Rams picked up four first downs, including three third down conversions to finish New England off.
The way the Patriots see it, playing the best team in the league tough was nothing the hang their hat on. This is a bottom line team looking to establish itself as a winner, but it didn't happen against the Rams.
"I don't take much from a loss," Smith said. "I don't look for moral victories. We lost today, and now we have to go back in, do our homework and get a victory next week."