LONDON — It was a long, strange trip for the Patriots.
That’s not a depiction of their visit to London, which included a walkthrough in Hyde Park. It’s a description of the Jekyll and Hyde first half of the season for Bill Belichick’s frequent fliers. Sherlock Holmes would have a tough time figuring out this year’s Patriots, who reached the halfway mark at 5-3.
The football philosopher Duane Charles Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.” But it’s not that simple with this bunch. They’re more like a football Rorschach test. Optimists could argue they see a Super Bowl contender with a few close losses. Pessimists could say they see a flawed team that struggles to finish in the fourth quarter. Both would be right.
A Wembley Stadium crowd of 84,004 was treated to the good Patriots on Sunday, the ones who garnered predictions of 16-0 and had fans packing training camp practices like they were Bruce Springsteen concerts. Without Aaron Hernandez, Logan Mankins or either of their starting safeties, the Patriots came to the United Kingdom, got their passports stamped, and then promptly stomped the St. Louis Rams, 45-7, in a game that wasn’t even that close.
“When it all comes together we can go out there and show the team we can really be,” said Stevan Ridley, who is looking more and more like a bonafide featured back after rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
Any uninitiated British football fan must have thought that the rules of this unfamiliar game mandated the Patriots score every time they touched the ball. If the Brits didn’t know what the end zone was before the Patriots-Rams game they learned quickly, thanks to Tom Brady (304 yards passing and four touchdowns) and Co. New England was unstoppable in Old England, scoring the first six times it touched the ball (five touchdowns) to build a 38-7 lead with 6:55 left in the third quarter.
That’s one way to prevent the squandering of a fourth-quarter lead, as the Patriots had done the prior two weeks.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick might not love making the trip across the pond, but his team does. It has now ventured to London twice in the last four seasons — it defeated Tampa Bay, 35-7, here in 2009 — and won by a combined score of 80-14.
After being carved up by pedestrian passers Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez the last two weeks, the Patriots’ defense got off to an inauspicious start when it allowed a 50-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to rookie wide receiver Chris Givens on the first possession of the game.
It seemed the secondary was leaky on either side of the Atlantic. But that turned out to be the only points the Rams, limited to 326 yards of offense, scored.
British fans got the Full Gronkowski, as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski caught a career-high-tying eight balls for 146 yards and two touchdowns. After his first touchdown, a 7-yard strike that gave the Patriots a 21-7 lead, he offered a salute to the Queen’s Guard by marching back and forth in the end zone before his signature spike. Gronk’s child-like exuberance translates to any culture.
The game was child’s play for the Patriots, who racked up 473 yards of offense. and averaged 5.4 yards per rush.
The interesting thing about the Patriots is that eight games into the season it feels as though we’re no closer to knowing their identity than we were at the start. You knew that Bobby Valentine’s Red Sox were going to be a wreck almost immediately.
This team is like a piece of art at the Tate Modern — open to interpretation. Their three losses came by a total of 4 points, two on last-second field goals (one missed and one made).
Viewed from another angle, they look like football front-runners, at their best when they can clock opponents like Big Ben. Their victories over Tennessee, Buffalo, and St. Louis came by an average of 27.6 points. In their win over Denver, they built a 31-7 lead before holding on for a 31-21 victory.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed in our record so far,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo. “We have a high standard. All the guys in the locker room, we feel we can win every game. If we play our best football, we feel we can win any game. We lost three close games. You never want to see that happen. It’s in the past. We can’t do anything about it. We’re looking forward. We’re looking forward to this bye week, first of all, and then the next game.”
Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who caught a pair of touchdown passes after looking like he inherited more than Chad Ochocinco’s number last week against the New York Jets, said the romp over the Rams was a reminder that the Patriots are still searching for consistency and identity.
“We’re halfway through the season now, and we just can’t afford to drop any more games,” said Lloyd. “We have to figure out our rhythm. We have to figure out who we’re going to be week in and week out.”
Teams that lack identity often lack victories in January. But the Patriots still have time to show their true colors.
“There is a lot of football to be played,” said Brady. “There are a lot of teams that are going to start making improvements. There are going to be teams that go the other way. I hope we’re one of those teams that continues to get better and uses the games they’ve already played as . . . you learn from those and try to make your improvements there and move on from the bad games, and get the stuff that works.”
The Patriots’ London excursion is over, but their final destination is still to be determined.