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LONDON -- The New England Patriots traveled 16,000 miles to get to this point, from the East Coast to the Pacific time zone and finally to a different country, before they could decisively declare their elusive goal had been attained.
Going back to the start of the preseason, they knew they had a 60-minute effort in them, the type in which they jam their foot on the accelerator from the start and never let up, playing a smart, air-tight brand of football -- a.k.a. Patriots football.
They had shown spurts of excellence. Yet other times, they looked like they couldn't get out of their own way. They sometimes started fast and then couldn't close. Then there were games when they didn't start fast and made a late surge, and sometimes that was good enough, other times it wasn't.
The result was a 4-3 record that quarterback Tom Brady called mediocre, and a team that was hard to truly put a finger on. Who were these New England Patriots?
On Sunday before 84,004 at Wembley Stadium, the picture was altered dramatically as the Patriots demolished the overmatched St. Louis Rams 45-7, all the parts coming together with hurricane-type force.
"It's about time," receiver Wes Welker said. "It's good to see what we're capable of."
And they did it shorthanded, which made it even more impressive.
The Patriots arrived in London a banged-up team, having downgraded seven players (a group including tight end Aaron Hernandez) before touching down at Heathrow Airport on Friday morning, and then learning shortly before kickoff that starting left guard Logan Mankins wouldn't be able to go because of hip and calf injuries. Key defensive players Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork were among those fighting illness in the days leading up to kickoff, and it's clear that others, such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, haven't been close to 100 percent.
|Although he wasn't 100 percent, Rob Gronkowski was more than the Rams could handle.|
This was a spot that tested the Patriots' resolve, and similar to how they responded Sept. 30 in an explosive second half against the Buffalo Bills, they displayed a relentlessness that could serve them well down the line.
"This is a tough football team -- physically, mentally," Wilfork said. "The things Bill [Belichick] asks us to do sometimes don't always work in our favor and we wonder why we have to do it this way. But he's the head coach. He knew what's best for this team.
"I give him a lot of credit because sometimes we are beat up, sometimes we are tired, sometimes we are sick, but guys find a way to keep moving on."
It looked as if it might be another struggle early, when one of the big issues hurting the Patriots -- giving up the big play -- cropped up on the Rams' first drive. When quarterback Sam Bradford connected with receiver Chris Givens on a 50-yard touchdown bomb 2:35 into the game, all of New England had to be saying, "Here we go again."
All the Patriots did from there was score the game's final 45 points -- starting with five touchdowns on their first five drives -- slicing up a Rams defense that entered ranked 10th in the NFL in fewest points allowed (20.1 per game), and on defense, owning the critical situations. Where did that come from?
"Really proud of the way our players performed, I give them all the credit in the world," Belichick said. "They had a couple tough weeks here with the Seattle trip [Oct. 14], then this trip. They didn't let it affect them. They just took care of business."
Here's how they did it.
On offense, the Patriots ran most of their plays with three receivers on the field, in part because they were without Hernandez, one of their top two tight ends. Of Brady's 35 drop backs, 32 came with three receivers. The Rams matched with a nickel defense (five defensive backs) and the combination of their inability to generate pressure up front (offensive tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer were terrific) and cover Gronkowski (8 catches, 146 yards, 2 TDs) on the back end made it easy pickings for Brady -- and fun for Gronkowski, whose two TD spikes added some playful fun to the business-like effort. The Patriots also mixed in the running game to maintain their balance.
On defense, the Patriots came up with three critical stops in the first half -- first by dialing up pressure via a Brandon Spikes third-down blitz, then by creating two third-and-long situations with strong early-down play -- Wilfork racing to the sideline to drop running back Daryl Richardson for a 4-yard loss was impressive (setting up third-and-15), then defensive lineman Kyle Love drawing a holding penalty on a first-down screen pass (nothing like making an opponent start a drive with a first-and-20).
The way the Patriots' offense was clicking, those stops were like turnovers. Before the Rams knew what hit them, it was 28-7 at halftime.
And let's not forget the coaching, which has come under fire at times this season. Belichick going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the team's second drive was an aggressive decision that paid off, setting the tone for the rest of the game.
"It feels good. We've been close a few times but haven't closed the deal," said Brady, who switched back to his old helmet after two subpar performances with a new one. "They got off to a good start. We countered and never looked back."
Because of that, the Patriots now can look ahead to their bye week and in Belichick's words, "relax for a little bit and know you don't have another game for two weeks."
True, the main issue after the game Sunday wasn't football-related, but instead whether the team would make it home in time because of Hurricane Sandy. They planned to leave at 5 a.m. Monday, coming back with not just a victory, but the type of 60-minute effort that had been elusive.
"It feels good finally to put one game together as a team," Wilfork said. "Guys can see when we play together and don't hurt ourselves, we can be a dangerous football team."