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Rams-Patriots post-game analysis: What now?

New England raises more questions than it answers in its crucial, third preseason game.

We're still in the preseason, but this is the early front-runner for quote of the year.

"In a game with no defense, we played less."

Bill Belichick doesn't normally get this upset after regular season losses. He was visibly appalled, though, by his Patriots' performance Thursday night against the St. Louis Rams in their third (i.e., most important) preseason contest. The offense posted 35 points, but that wasn't enough, as the Rams kicked a last-second field goal to win 36-35.

Afterward, the head coach was even more critical of the output of all phases of his team, including the coaching staff.

"We obviously didn't have a very good night tonight. I don't think we did very many things well," he began in his post-game remarks to the media.

"We've got a lot of work to do. I don't have too much to say. We've just got to get back to the drawing board, just do a better job in every area. I don't think we played well … or coached well. We just didn't do a good job tonight … Right now, we've got a lot of mistakes to correct."

New England's starters, on both sides of the football, played well into the third quarter, while the Rams began substituting much earlier. Nevertheless, the Patriots had to play catch-up for most of the night, as Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, the first overall pick in this year's draft, looked impressive picking apart the Patriots' first defense and shepherding his team to an early lead.

"It was very disappointing," a dejected James Sanders told reporters. "Anytime you have an offense that's moving the ball at will, it's demoralizing. It's disappointing as a unit that takes pride in stopping teams. We didn't do that today. We just need to get together as a defense and figure out what happened tonight."

"He did well. He came out and executed the game plan," Jerod Mayo said of Bradford's performance.

"He's an NFL quarterback. Obviously, he can make plays and that's what he did tonight," cornerback Darius Butler added.

Both teams were sloppy, with New England committing seven penalties and St. Louis nine.

"We made some dumb plays, a lot of penalties," Mayo pointed out, "especially on third down. Kind of drains you when you make a stop on third down and then you see the yellow flag."

Despite the high point total, the offense wasn't pleased with its performance either.

"We lost, so … we didn't play our best," quarterback Tom Brady told reporters. "We just couldn't stay on the field offensively."

"When you can't make a first down in the first half," Belichick continued, "it's hard to find a lot of bright spots."

There was at least one, though: rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski. He may have only caught three passes, but they were all big plays. Two of them, in fact, went for touchdowns. His first was easily the play of the game – a spectacular individual effort to break free of the clutches of a Rams defender and lunge over the goal line for the score.

"I definitely feel more comfortable from the beginning," Gronkowski said at his locker after the game. "I mean, I didn't know a play coming in here. But I've got a lot to learn. I can study a lot more about the defense, how to run routes perfectly … but I definitely feel a lot of progress since I got here."

On special teams, too, there was a ray of hope. With the game's opening kickoff, second-year man Brandon Tate opened the scoring by taking the ball 97 yards for a touchdown.

"First of all, I give all the credit to my teammates for blocking. Without them, it wouldn't have been possible," Tate explained.

"But I was telling the coaches, 'I'm ready. This one will be the one. It will happen.' I just willed it, but I have to give the credit to my teammates. The coaches were telling me, 'Just hit it, and when you get it, don't do too much juking or dancing, just hit it.' So, that's what I did."

On the down side, however, rookie punter Zoltan Mesko struggled yet again. On five punts, he averaged an anemic 27.2 net yards. His gross average was only 10 yards better.

With just one preseason affair left, next week at the New York Giants, what solace can the Patriots take from the loss to St. Louis?

"I'd rather make the mistakes in practice and preseason than make them in the [season-opening] Cincinnati game," Mayo reasoned. "Back to the drawing board …"

"It's still too early to tell," Brady countered.

The problem is, time is quickly running out.

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