FOXBOROUGH - After 60 minutes of football, it was clear. The Patriots, 24-17 losers to the St. Louis Rams last night, aren’t quite in the same league as the Rams. But who is?
“One thing that came out of this is that we know we’re a good team,” said Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who spent most of the game chasing down Rams receivers. “We had a chance to win the game, but we made too many mistakes. It’s that simple.”
The Rams improved to 8-1 and ended the Patriots’ two-game winning streak, evening their record at 5-5. The Patriots were unable to stay in the hunt for the top spot in the AFC East, as the New York Jets defeated the Miami Dolphins, 24-0, to improve to 7-3.
Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, despite throwing a pair of interceptions and fumbling once, threw for three touchdowns and 401 yards. His New England counterpart, Tom Brady, was picked off twice and threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. It was too little, too late.
“It wasn’t like we weren’t moving the ball,” said Brady.
The Rams simply wore down the Patriots’ defense. What also killed New England was a controversial play late in the second quarter inside the St. Louis 5-yard line. Antowain Smith fumbled at the 4, and it was recovered by the Rams at the 3. The Patriots thought Smith was down before the ball popped loose, but their replay challenge failed to get the call overruled.
“I have to blame myself,” said Smith. “It’s not all right in that situation. I’m a veteran, I’ve got to have better ball security in that situation. I have to put it behind me real fast. We had an opportunity to shock the world - that turnover killed us.”
The Rams turned around and marched 97 yards for a score and a 14-point swing.
“We left a lot on the field,” said Patriots cornerback Otis Smith. “We had to spread our defense to match what they had to offer. We let them score, which we shouldn’t do. We should never let them march 97 yards like that. That hurt.”
The Patriots hung in to the end, but the Rams held the ball for the final 7:46, converting three third downs to seal the win and taking a knee three times to end it.
The Rams’ winning margin came on an 11-yard pass from Warner to fullback James Hodgins that made it 24-10 with 10:32 left.
The Patriots didn’t cower, however. On their next possession, Brady put together his best series, driving the team 65 yards in 2:46. He connected on all five of his passes, the key one a 27-yarder down the middle to David Patten, who had been fairly quiet. With the ball at the Rams 21, Brady threw 11 yards to Kevin Faulk. From the 10, Brady found Patten alone in the corner of the end zone, making it 24-17 with 7:46 remaining.
In the third quarter, the Patriots were trying to use the running game to keep the Rams off the field, but a Marc Edwards drop on third and 6 at the 44 gave the Rams the ball back. Warner then fumbled a snap from center, however, and Larry Izzo was given credit for the recovery, giving the Patriots the ball at the 45.
Brady, however, couldn’t take advantage.
On the first play of the series, Brady gave the ball right back. He threw into double coverage and London Fletcher picked it off and ran 18 yards to the 42. The Rams settled for a 35-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins with 3:06 left in the third, making their lead 17-10.
But the key point in the game was the 14-point swing.
“Gutsy” was the only word to describe Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s decision to go for it on fourth and 2 from the Rams 44 late in the second quarter. The Patriots not only made it, but got a 17-yard gain on a pass in the right flat to Troy Brown.
But leading, 10-7, the Patriots made a big mistake when Smith coughed it up.
Warner, working in the two-minute offense, drove his team those 97 yards in 1:41, culminating in a 9-yard pass to Marshall Faulk with 31 seconds remaining in the half. Warner completed passes of 22, 20, 19, and 10 yards at the start of the drive, three of them to Ricky Proehl.
The Patriots didn’t play well early and late in the first half. In the middle, they were dynamite.
On the Patriots’ first series, which started at their 9, Brady went back to throw and spotted Kevin Faulk crossing over the middle. The throw was there, but it bounced off Faulk’s fingertips into the hands of cornerback Dexter McCleon.
The Rams offense started its second series at the Patriots 18, and on the third play, Warner, bad thumb and all, had time to drop back, plant, and look. He hit Torry Holt in stride on a post pattern, beating Ty Law on a 16-yard scoring strike with 9:38 remaining in the first.
It silenced a loud full house at Foxboro Stadium.
The Patriots tried attacking the Rams like most teams do, using six, and sometimes seven, defensive backs.
New England took advantage of the heavy traffic when Rams receiver Proehl seemed to run the wrong route and Warner threw it where Proehl should have been. Terrell Buckley was there and intercepted the ball at the 48 and zipped 52 yards to pay dirt, tying the score at 7.
The 10-year veteran has returned five interceptions for touchdowns, the last coming while he was with the Denver Broncos, and it was against Warner.
The Rams, who lead the league in turnovers, went back to their self-destructive ways when Warner threw another ball into coverage, intended for Marshall Faulk. But it was picked off by Tedy Bruschi at the Rams 40.
Brady went right to work, throwing a bullet slightly behind Brown. But the Patriots’ leading receiver made a nice catch for a 23-yard gain to the 17. The Rams toughened, and forced the Patriots to settle for Adam Vinatieri’s 33-yard field goal with 14:04 remaining in the second.
The Rams marched again midway through the second quarter, but the drive, which began at their 29, ended at the Patriots 24. The usually sure-footed Wilkins misfired wide right on a 42-yard attempt. The Patriots maintained a 3-point lead.