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Scouting the Matchup: Blount could be the key

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots rank among the top 10 in the NFL in rushing behind the resurgent LeGarrette Blount and figure to get better as Dion Lewis rounds into form since recently returning from the physically unable to perform list. The Rams have been up and down against the run defensively; they've allowed as many as 193 yards on the ground against Buffalo and as few as 36 against the Giants. Even with the ebbs and flows, linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron both rank among the top 25 in the league in tackles, which allows Los Angeles to get away with primarily playing a nickel defense. The return of defensive tackle Michael Brockers adds stability to the front seven, but the Patriots have too many weapons now with Lewis back in the fold and should be able to grind out yards, especially if they have a late lead. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE RAMS RUN

Second-year running back Todd Gurley is enduring a sophomore slump this season after rushing for 1,106 yards as a rookie. His yards per carry have plummeted, and there's almost no chance he'll match the 10 touchdowns he scored in 2015. Opposing teams are scheming to shut down Gurley, and the offensive line is struggling to adjust. As a result, the Rams are one of the NFL's worst rushing teams. The Patriots have had their own issues stopping the run in recent weeks as they adjust to life without Jamie Collins. They allowed 100 or more rushing yards three times in a five-week span between mid-October and November and rank among the bottom half of the NFL against the run, although New England was sound against Matt Forte and the Jets a week ago. The Patriots probably won't stack the box against Gurley, so this could be his chance for a breakthrough game. The Rams desperately need it. Advantage: Rams

WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

Tom Brady continues to roll despite absorbing a scary hit to the knee by Kam Chancellor several weeks ago. The Rams rank near the bottom of the league in interceptions but remain a top-10 team against the pass despite a woeful effort against New Orleans in which they allowed five passing touchdowns. The loss of Troy Hill, who was cut recently following his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence, affects the Rams depth and their ability to operate out of their base nickel. The Rams can cover, but their inability to get to the quarterback and disrupt Brady's rhythm will allow the veteran quarterback to find holes in the defense, no matter how small they may be. Advantage: Patriots

WHEN THE RAMS PASS

The Rams recently moved on from Case Keenum and have handed the keys to No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff, but their passing offense remains one of the worst in the NFL. Their top receiver is nine-year veteran Kenny Britt, who shot his way out of Tennessee due to numerous run-ins with the police, but Britt is struggling to develop the same rapport with Goff as he had with Keenum. Outside of Britt and speedy deep threat Brian Quick, the cupboard is bare, and the offensive line hasn't provided much protection, allowing more sacks per pass attempt than all but eight NFL teams. Goff is coming off a three-touchdown performance in his second-career start, but this matchup is just what the doctor ordered for a New England defense victimized all season by its inability to force turnovers or consistently rush the passer. Advantage: Patriots

SPECIAL TEAMS

Outside of a minor blip on the radar against Carolina, Los Angeles' special teams units have helped keep this team from sinking to the bottom of the NFC West. The punt return unit made a big play to set up the winning score against Arizona in Week 4, while punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein teamed up to lead the Rams to an ugly win over the Jets in Week 10. The Patriots are among the top five teams in average starting field position, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski has missed more extra-point attempts this season than he did in his first 10 seasons combined and through 12 weeks has missed more field goals than he did all of last season. Hekker leads the league with the most punts inside the 20-yard line; both he and Zuerlen are legitimate weapons in close games, as is dynamic return man Tavon Austin. Advantage: Rams

OTHER FACTORS

The Rams have been solid defensively and have the ability to win games on special teams, but the Patriots are too well-rounded and too good at home to fall into a trap against a non-conference opponent, especially with home-field advantage in the postseason still up for grabs. Outside of losing to Geno Smith and Russell Wilson in their first seasons, the Patriots have been exceptional against rookie quarterbacks during the Bill Belichick era and should be able to right the ship against Goff and the Los Angeles offense. With defensive coordinator Matt Patricia facing heavy criticism in recent weeks, the Patriots might be more aggressive Sunday knowing the Rams don't have the weapons to beat them downfield or make them pay for their mistakes. This could be a much-needed slump-buster for New England's maligned defense. Advantage: Patriots

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