Despite talk of the Patriots being unable to close out games, or lacking an identity on offense, or not having enough within the pass rush and secondary, just one thing stands between entering the team’s bye week with a division lead and four wins in its past five games.
That, of course, is a matchup with the St. Louis Rams in a unique setting: Wembley Stadium, the most prestigious sporting venue in London. It plays hosts to other teams, such as the English national soccer (or, as it’s referred to locally, football) squad, and was the site of a 35-7 Patriots victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009.
If the Patriots can replicate their London success on Sunday, they will stand at 5-3 and ready for a schedule that involves just three road games down the stretch, and none that requires changing time zones. That stands in stark contrast to the roughly 16,000 miles they have already traveled since the third week of preseason play.
But it won’t be easy, as the Patriots have a hungry and improving Rams team to get past, and one that has a pension for causing havoc for opposing quarterbacks. To make matters worse, the Patriots find themselves in a tough spot in terms of injuries. Seven players have already been ruled out of Sunday’s game. That’s where we’ll start with our six things to keep an eye on Sunday afternoon:
1. Injury impact. The Patriots are beaten up entering Week 8. Prior to placing cornerback Ras-I Dowling on injured reserve, he was one of seven Patriots already ruled out for Week 8, including tight end Aaron Hernandez. Beyond that group, 12 others are questionable for Sunday. The mounting injury woes could be a product of the team’s grueling travel schedule so far this season, as well as the fact that the bye week has not yet arrived. So as important as a win is on Sunday, the Patriots are also hoping to leave without any additional injuries. As for the impact their current injuries will have on Sunday, keep an eye on linebacker Jerod Mayo, among those listed as questionable. An elbow issue limited him in practice this week, and the Patriots need the heart and soul of their defense to be close to his usual self to contain Rams running back Steven Jackson. The Patriots will also be without both of their starting safeties -- Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung -- for a second straight week.
2.Handling the circumstances. The rules won’t be any different when these two teams play on Sunday, but this week has been anything but normal for the Patriots and Rams. New England opted to travel through the night on Thursday and use Friday as a transition day in London. That leaves the team with 48-plus hours to ready itself for kickoff, which includes acclimating to the time change and resting up after an unusual work week. The Patriots have downplayed the impact of travel this week, but will nonetheless need to be sharp by the time kickoff rolls around.
3.Flavor of the week on offense. Do the Patriots lack an identity on offense? In the eyes of this scribe, they don’t. What are they? They’re a chameleon that is capable of attacking a defense in a number of ways. The Patriots have adopted a number of different strategies through seven games this season, and stand atop both the yards per game and points scored column. That’s versatility and efficiency. So, what will the Patriots do this week? Given the Rams’ impressive pass rush and group of cornerbacks, it could be a weekend where the running game is used to set up the passing attack.
4.Containing Givens. For the second consecutive week, the Patriots face a team with passing game woes. Last week, the Patriots allowed Mark Sanchez to go over 300 yards through the air. Ouch. The Rams aren’t loaded up with weapons in the passing game, but it bears mentioning that rookie receiver Chris Givens has a catch of more than 40 yards in each of the past four games. Bill Belichick was asked about Givens on Friday: “Givens has really made some big plays for them,” he said. “He hasn’t had that many opportunities but the ones he’s had, he’s hit big on. ... He’s definitely given them an element of big plays.” Stopping the Rams’ passing game may come down to limiting Givens on Sunday.
5.Protecting Brady. It might sound like a broken record, but protecting quarterback Tom Brady is of critical importance this weekend. That means the Patriots’ offensive tackles doing a tremendous job against a dynamic duo of edge rushers in Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Quinn has seven sacks already this season, and Long has developed into a top-flight player. St. Louis is a fast, aggressive defense, and one that feeds off of pressure. Keeping Brady upright is imperative.
6.Consistency for 60 minutes. What the Patriots have shown through seven weeks is that for stretches of a game, they can be among the most dominant teams in football. The talent is largely in place, the system is largely in place. What it comes down to is piecing together that dominance for 60 minutes. The Patriots need to show that they can push the pedal to the metal from the first quarter to the fourth, and begin to truly separate themselves from the rest of the division. There’s no better time to do so than entering their Week 9 bye.