The Patriots dominated the visiting Los Angeles Rams early on and eventually coasted to a 26-10 victory to improve to 10-2. The won not only solidified New England's place atop the AFC East but it marked Tom Brady's 201st win as a starter, which moved him past Peyton Manning all alone at the top of the NFL's all-time victory list.
Here are some random thoughts from the team's most recent win.
In the running – With Rob Gronkowski gone and Tom Brady still nursing a sore knee it made sense to expect the Patriots to lean in a little bit more heavily on the running game. They wasted little time doing so, opening the day with three straight runs from three different ball carriers. Dion Lewis got the first and picked up 4 yards before LeGarrette Blount and James White followed with 9-yard runs. That opening drive ended in style with Blount bouncing outside on fourth-and-one before rumbling 43 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. Overall the Patriots rushed five times for 68 yards on the touchdown march and immediately grabbed control against the overmatched Los Angeles Rams.
Kicking back – It hasn't been the best of seasons for Stephen Gostkowski but the kicker may have enjoyed his best game of the season against the Rams. After missing a 39-yard field goal last week against the Jets, his fourth missed field goal and seventh missed kick overall of the season, the All-Pro was sharp in nailing kicks of 28, 48, 45 and 45 yards as well as his two PATs. While it may not seem like such a noteworthy occurrence for a kicker to connect on all of his kicks, given the struggles he's had this season it was a nice step toward Gostkowski perhaps regaining some of his confidence as the Patriots gear up toward the playoffs.
On the attack – The defense has been a work in progress for much of the season but as of late there have been signs of life. One reason for that may be the recent tendency for Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to stick with a corps group of players. Recently the lineup has included Shea McClellin next to Dont'a Hightower at linebacker with Kyle Van Noy replacing McClellin on passing downs. The defensive ends have rotated with Jabaal Sheard no longer holding down a full-time role. As this group of personnel has gotten more comfortable working together it seems the coaches are starting to open up the playbook a bit. That resulted in some more pressure than normal and rookie quarterback Jared Goff was sacked five times in his third career start. Among the pressure seemed to be some different looks that resulted in one of the interceptions when Sheard's hit on Goff caused his pass to fell well short of its intended target. Sheard also dropped deep into zones and was active in coverage while Van Noy secured the aforementioned pick.
Pressure performance – Part of the changes on defense was the presence of Logan Ryan on the pass rush. The corner blitzed off the edge effectively early and came up with a sack and later forced Goff to get rid of a throw earlier than he wanted to. Belichick recently said Ryan was doing well in a variety of roles, whether that meant starting on the outside, working out of the slot or whatever he was asked. On Sunday against the Rams that role included plenty of pass rushing work, and he was successful.
Not so special – The Patriots did not generate much in the return game, and once again there were some problem with Cyrus Jones in that regard. First he opened the game by double-clutching the opening kickoff before returning it 24 yards to the 20. He then muffed his first attempt to return a Johnny Hekker punt before Patrick Chung recovered to avoid the turnover. Danny Amendola replaced him on punt returns and he managed just 8, minus-1, 0 and minus-1 on his four attempts before leaving the game with an ankle injury. At that point Jones was forced back into the role and had Hekker's 76-yard punt sail over his head before picking up just a yard. Perhaps the absence of Matthew Slater, who missed the game with a foot injury, impacted the return game but it was not the team's best effort in that department.
Split decision – Since Dion Lewis returned to action a few weeks ago the Patriots have used him and James White together in the backfield sporadically. Unofficially Josh McDaniels used the two backs together on five snaps against the Rams but didn't really benefit much from the pairing. Lewis rushed for 4 yards on the first play and caught a 4-yard pass the second time they were together. Malcolm Mitchell caught a 9-yard pass before the last two opportunities resulted in incomplete passes. It's a formation you can bet the coaches will continue to employ in the coming weeks in an effort to find ways to move the ball and put point on the board in Rob Gronkowski's absence.
The New England Patriots take on the Los Angeles Rams at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 4, 2016.
Fighting through screens – Speaking of offensive philosophy, it was clear McDaniels felt the Rams defense could be exploited in the form of screen passes. Despite giving the offense several chances (conservatively somewhere between 5-10) that never really materialized. Martellus Bennett was thrown a pair of screens and picked up just 4 yards combined. Lewis and White couldn't find much space either as the Rams did a good job of defeating blocks and tackling in space, which is the key to defending screens. Some of those struggles led to the Patriots converting just 4 of 16 third downs and forced Ryan Allen to punt five times. It will be interesting to see if the additional screens were the result of a change in approach due to personnel or simply a game plan decision based on the Rams.
Extra points – Rookie quarterbacks have never beaten Belichick at home since 2000 with Goff becoming the eighth victim. Combined those rookies have thrown just five touchdowns and been intercepted 18 times. … The Rams had just 25 yards of total offense at halftime, which is the fewest the Patriots have ever allowed in any half. The Patriots finished with an edge of 402-162 in total yards. … The Patriots won their 10th game of the season, marking the 14th straight time they've reached double digits. … The Rams finished with just seven first downs, the fewest New England has allowed this season. … Blount's 43-yard touchdown run was his 13th of the season, one shy of Curtis Martin's record 14 in team history. … Mitchell established a career high with eight catches for 82 yards. It marked the third straight game he's established a career high. … Julian Edelman finished with eight grabs for 101 yards.