ST. LOUIS - Over the last three years, the New England Patriots have defined the word “team.” Yesterday they redefined it and along the way embarrassed an ill-prepared team that couldn’t execute, the St. Louis Rams, 40-22, at the Edward Jones Dome.
The Patriots had a linebacker catch a pass for a touchdown, a kicker throw a pass for a touchdown, and a wide receiver, practice squad player, linebacker, and rookie free agent all play defensive back at various times without serious consequences. It all symbolized what has made the Patriots the most resilient team in the league.
“This is probably as much of a team victory as anything I’ve ever been around,” coach Bill Belichick said. “They fought to the end. That’s what a team’s about. Everyone doing their job.”
With both starting cornerbacks and right tackle Tom Ashworth out before the opening kickoff, and reserve corner Asante Samuel knocked out for much of the day on the Rams’ second play with a jammed shoulder, the Patriots were facing the kind of uphill battle to which Sisyphus could have related. But that ancient myth did not apply in the end because the Patriots not only pushed their personal boulder up the hill but then rolled it over the Rams.
Always, it seems, these Patriots play their best when the situation is at its worst and it couldn’t get much worse than having their secondary riddled by injury as they were facing one of the most explosive pass offenses in football. Despite those problems, they left their opponent so bamboozled that after three quarters the Rams had attempted only 19 passes. If ever there was a game that cried out for abandoning a sense of balance, this was it. But St. Louis failed to take that course in part because the Patriots were hellbent on harassing their quarterback, sacking Marc Bulger five times and knocking him around on many other occasions. Meanwhile, the Rams committed enough turnovers (three) and penalties (10) to beat themselves.
“I think it really came down to being more physical than they were,” defensive end Richard Seymour said. “All week we talked about having to help the DBs and they had to help us. We wanted to pressure Bulger to get the ball out of there quick so they didn’t have time to get into their routes.”
New England’s secondary problems were compounded on the second defensive play of the game when Samuel injured his right shoulder tackling tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. Samuel was replaced by wide receiver Troy Brown, who was involved in a tackle on running back Marshall Faulk on the very next play. Before the day was out, Brown would be the epitome of what the Patriots are about, catching a touchdown pass on a fake field goal, making three receptions, three tackles, and nearly intercepting two passes.
“The coaches were schooling me on the run,” Brown said of his first NFL game as the Chuck Bednarik of his day, a two-way performer in a time of specialists. “It was a little intimidating at first to be out there against some of the best guys to play wide receiver, but after I got a little sweat worked up I got more comfortable. That’s what they teach you around here. Prepare for everything.”
While the Patriots were prepared for everything, the Rams seemed prepared for nothing. By the end of the third quarter they trailed, 33-14, yet had thrown the ball only three more times than they ran it, a fact that dumbfounded many of the Patriots’ defenders.
“I thought they’d take more shots downfield,” safety Rodney Harrison admitted. “I figured they’d air it out, air it out, air it out. That’s what their fans figured, too, the way they were booing [them]. That’s what everyone was anticipating. We weren’t doing anything fancy. Everyone was just lining up and doing their job.”
After two Adam Vinatieri field goals gave the Patriots a 6-0 first-quarter lead, St. Louis struck back, but not by taking advantage of New England’s defense. Instead the Rams hammered Tom Brady in the end zone when offensive coordinator Charlie Weis unwisely decided to throw from the 6-yard line to open the second quarter.
Defensive tackle Damione Lewis pushed guard Joe Andruzzi back into the pocket, then reached over him and grabbed Brady’s right arm as he tried to throw, knocking the ball loose. Defensive end Leonard Little fell on it and the Rams held a 7-6 lead without the St. Louis offense having done a thing.
In typical Patriot fashion, Brady led his team back down the field immediately, moving it 64 yards in 10 plays to take the lead back. Staying with the theme of all hands on deck, linebacker Mike Vrabel made a fingertip catch and tiptoed to keep his feet in bounds in the corner of the end zone for a 2-yard score that made it 13-7.
St. Louis coach Mike Martz seemed to finally notice the battered nature of the Patriots’ secondary and went after it as soon as the Rams got the ball back. The big play was a 48-yard throw to Manumaleuna on a seam route on which he beat a linebacker with no apparent safety help behind him. Manumaleuna legged the ball to the 11-yard line and Bulger got the rest of it on the next play when he found Isaac Bruce wide open on a shallow cross for a touchdown that put the Rams back ahead, 14-13, with 5:19 left in the half.
Barely two minutes later, the Patriots had the lead back when Brady lofted a perfect throw to David Givens for a 50-yard reception on which cornerback Jerametrius Butler had equally perfect coverage and still was scorched by the combination of a beautiful throw and tremendous catch. Although New England’s offense stalled at that point, Vinatieri delivered his third field goal, a 45-yarder, and it was 16-14.
St. Louis got the ensuing kickoff and shredded New England’s Cover-2 defense, completing throws of 15 and 22 yards to Torry Holt with poor Earthwind Moreland, who was activated off the practice squad only two days ago, looking for help. He got it, but the Rams still needed only two plays to move the ball from their 34 to the New England 29 with two minutes left in the half. The defense came through at that point, hitting Bulger as he rolled left on the next play and knocking the ball loose. As it rolled toward the sideline, Jarvis Green dived on it at the Rams’ 28.
One play later, Little was called for roughing the passer and the crowd grew surly. Despite the deafening booing, Brady calmly completed a 20-yard throw to David Patten on third and 10 to the Rams’ 37 with 37 seconds to play and another throw under pressure for 19 yards to Patten to set up Vinatieri’s fourth field goal, a 36-yarder, as time ran out to make it 19-14 New England.
Things only got more embarrassing for the Rams in the second half. Once again Vinatieri was involved when he took a direct snap after lining up for an apparent 21-yard field goal try, and instead threw a pass to a wide-open Brown. By the time the Rams noticed Brown, he was standing all alone near the sideline and it was too late to do anything about it but point fingers.
“We were walking back to the huddle and the next thing you know the ball was snapped and they threw it,” Lewis said. “I was trying to get the call to see which field goal block we were going to do. Next thing you know the ball was in the end zone.”
Now trailing, 26-14, the Rams were reeling. Soon they would be completely undone.
Just four plays after Vinatieri’s sneak attack, linebacker Willie McGinest was covering the speedy Holt like a blanket before he slapped a Bulger pass away and Roman Phifer picked it off and returned it to the Rams’ 21. Barely two minutes later, it was 33-14 after Corey Dillon deked safety Rich Coady out of a shoe and sprinted into the end zone untouched with 3:36 to play in a third quarter that had become an embarrassment for the Rams.
“I don’t know why we continue not to play to our capabilities,” Rams safety Adam Archuleta said.
Maybe because yesterday they were playing a team that always plays to its capabilities. And sometimes beyond them.