The St. Louis Rams are “hosting” the New England Patriots this Sunday at Wembley Stadium in the 2012 installment of the NFL’s International Series. This is a good opportunity for the Rams to grow their brand overseas, but losing a home game to play in London hurts as the team has played so well at home this season. Of course Rams owner Stan Kroenke is also the owner the English Premier League club The Arsenal, which affords the Rams access to some world class facilities while preparing for the game on Sunday. The Rams and Patriots have both surprised this season, the Rams have surprised many by being competitive in every football game and pushing their record over .500 two weeks ago. The Patriots have surprised people because of their late game collapses against seemingly inferior football teams, especially considering the Patriots were many people preseason AFC representative to the Super Bowl. The odds makers have the spread at 7 points in favor of the Patriots which is understandable, but if I were a betting man I would certainly take the Rams to cover the spread. So what should we keep our eye out for on Sunday?
Tom Brady & Sam Bradford. The most obvious answer is of course the two quarterbacks. Tom Brady has been the face of the Patriots for the last decade and is one of the best quarterbacks of his generation. This may sound crazy but I believe he presents less of a challenge than Aaron Rodgers did last weekend, Rodgers is more mobile and is also on fire right now, but even so Brady is still a great quarterback that will pick apart the Rams defense if they can’t pressure him with their front four. If the Rams have to blitz to apply pressure Brady will find the single coverage and it could be a long day for the Rams defense. Sam Bradford is the incredibly talented young quarterback who has yet to put it all together. Sam is in his 3rd offensive system in 3 years and is also lacking that true #1 wide receiver to make life easier. This weekend Sam will be facing one of the weakest secondaries in football, and with the emergence of Chris Givens as a deep threat Sam Bradford will have an opportunity to put up big numbers. If the Rams want to win on Sunday they will need Bradford to show the folks in London why he was the #1 overall choice.
Rams Defense. I could have put both defenses in this category but honestly I don’t believe the Patriots defense will be as big of a factor in this game as the Rams defense will have to be if the Rams are going to win. Not to take anything away from the Patriots defense as they do have a solid front 7, but they are under much less pressure to perform as they have Tom Brady and the highest scoring offense in the NFL to back them up when they make mistakes. The Rams defense has to perform its best on every series as has been proven over the last two weeks. One or two bad plays from the defense in each of those games really hurt the Rams chances at victory. The Rams can’t afford to get caught flat footed in London and fall into an early hole against the Patriots. The Rams do catch a break with news that Aaron Hernandez didn’t make the trip to London but they will still have to contend with Welker and Gronkowski. The Rams defense has performed exceptionally well against the run over the last few weeks since Michael Brockers returned from injury, but the defense has failed to generate any turnovers in the last two weeks. If the Rams defense can’t help the Rams stay at least even in the turnover ratio the Rams will make the challenge of springing the upset even more daunting.
Red Zone Offense. Over the last 3 games the New England Patriots have scored touchdowns on 54% of their red zone possessions while the Rams have scored touchdowns on 50% of their red zone possessions, surprising to me that these percentages are as close as they are. The red zone has been an issue for the Rams since Sam’s Rookie year, and without Danny Amendola in the game this Sunday the job becomes even more difficult. The Rams cannot afford to settle for field goals against the Patriots, so expect Jeff Fisher to take a shot on 4th down much like he did last weekend against the Packers high octane offense. The Rams have hoped that Lance Kendricks and Austin Pettis will provide Sam with the big target in the red zone, but so far neither player has produced to the level the Rams need. I would let Legatron blast away on field goals where the ball is outside the Patriots 30 yard line, but if they are within 10 yards of the red zone they need to be able to punch it in to win this game.
Running Game. This Rams running game appears to be finding its groove after rushing for 108 yards at a 4.9 yard per carry clip against the Packers, and 162 yards at 6.0 yards per carry against Miami Dolphins who were at the time the #1 ranked rush defense. The Rams will want to run the ball well against the Patriots to keep their high powered offense off the field, but also to open up the deep pass by forcing a safety down into the box. Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson should both see a heavy workload in the running and the passing game as the Rams offense chews up yardage and clock as they try to turn the game into a low scoring slugfest.
I expect another close game that could hinge on one turnover or special teams play. The last couple of games the Rams have found themselves on the wrong end of those swing plays but if they can get a ball to bounce their way once or twice on Sunday they can head back to St. Louis with a big upset a 4-4 record, and an extra week to enjoy all of it. Go Rams!!