LONDON — At a news conference after his team arrived in London, coach Bill Belichick seemed less than thrilled with the prospect of facing the Rams not in St. Louis but in the United Kingdom.
But something about playing at Wembley Stadium agrees with Belichick’s Patriots: After looking shaky in their previous three games, they were dominant against an up-and-coming Rams team.
New England scored on its first six drives (five touchdowns and a field goal) Sunday and pitched a shutout for three-plus quarters for a 45-7 win.
The Patriots head into a much-needed bye week at 5-3.
However, the Patriots’ return home was up in the air because of Hurricane Sandy. It would have been difficult to fly home Sunday night even without the storm, since planes are not allowed to leave Heathrow Airport after 11 p.m. The team’s intention when it left for the trip was to stay until midday Monday.
But after the game, the Patriots decided they would leave London at 5 a.m. Monday local time, hoping to beat the storm to Boston.
The Patriots rebounded from a shaky performance against the Jets a week earlier.
“That was a nice way to end this trip,” Belichick said, his demeanor Sunday far different than it was on Friday morning. “The players get a lot of credit this week — had a tough game against the Jets, we moved everything up this week [because of the travel]. I’m really proud of the way the players performed. I give them all the credit in the world.
“It’s been a tough few weeks with Seattle and this trip, but they didn’t let it affect them. I have a lot of respect for the Rams; they’re a good football team. But we had a good day today, and the players did a real good job, all three units.”
The victory was the best wire-to-wire performance of the season for the Patriots, with the offense getting off to a fast start, the defense able to overcome an early stumble, and special teams ensuring that the Rams never began a drive past their 29.
“Everybody stuck together,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “It feels good to finally put one game together as a team, doing a lot of things correctly, just playing good football all the way around.
“Guys can see that when we play together and don’t hurt ourselves, we can be a dangerous football team.”
Their one major defensive lapse came on St. Louis’s first possession.
Quarterback Sam Bradford got his team to midfield, and on first down ran a play-action, then waited until Chris Givens got open downfield. Givens got a step on Tavon Wilson, Devin McCourty got to the play a step late, and Givens made the catch as he was falling over the goal line for a touchdown.
It was the fifth straight game in which Givens had a catch of at least 50 yards, a record for a rookie. Given the Patriots’ propensity for giving up big pass plays this season — it was the 39th of more than 20 yards they’ve allowed — it also was easy to feel that perhaps it was the start of a long day.
McCourty, again playing safety with Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory out, liked how his teammates responded after the TD.
“I think [earlier] in the season, that kills us, giving up a big play, we put our heads down and give up another one,” McCourty said. “I thought we did a good job today of putting that play past us, then playing great defense after that.”
The 7-0 lead didn’t last long for the Rams, who fell to 3-5 and were the first NFC West team the Patriots have beaten this year, after losses to Arizona and Seattle.
When the Patriots got the ball, an incompletion to Brandon Lloyd on third and short became a first down because Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher was called for the first of his three pass-interference penalties.
Tom Brady took full advantage of the second chance, and on third and 1 from the 19 he hit an open Lloyd for Lloyd’s second touchdown as a Patriot.
Lloyd had two receptions, both of them for touchdowns; he added a 9-yarder in the third quarter.
On New England’s second possession, the amped-up crowd, which featured fans wearing jerseys of nearly every team in the league, learned that St. Louis apparently forgot that a certain large individual named Rob Gronkowski plays tight end.
After a 20-yard run by Stevan Ridley on second down, Brady hit Gronkowski, open over the middle, for 25 yards, and two plays later Gronkowski had another 25-yard grab, being taken down just short of the goal line.
Shane Vereen scored on a 1-yard run for a 14-7 lead.
Gronkowski had two more long catches, of 17 and 32 yards, on the next possession, and also the touchdown on third and goal when the Rams used Michael Brockers — a defensive tackle! — to cover him on the line.
In homage to the game’s location, Gronkowski mimicked marching like a palace guard before his trademark spike. He scored again in the fourth quarter and now has seven TDs for the season.
Gronkowski credited his teammates for his being so open on many of his game-high eight catches.
“We were just doing a great job running the ball and that was a play-action pass,” he said of his second touchdown.
“When you’re running the ball well things happen, things open up. Just together as a whole, as an offense if everyone is playing well there is going to be areas that are open. That’s what’s great about working together as a team.”
The Rams had a chance to score before the half, on a long Greg Zuerlein field goal, but the snap to punter Johnny Hekker was bad, and Hekker could do nothing with the ball.
New England went into halftime with a 28-7 lead and got the ball to start the second half. It meant the fifth touchdown of the day, another end zone pass to Lloyd.
The defense did well to pester Bradford, and also kept the running back duo of Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson in check. Jackson had just 23 yards on seven carries.
Givens, who briefly left the game with a foot injury, returned, but his final two catches went for a total of 13 yards.
The rookies on defense had standout plays, with Chandler Jones getting a third-down ankle sack of Bradford in the third quarter to force a punt, and both Alfonzo Dennard and Wilson pulling in fourth-quarter interceptions — Dennard on a pass that proved to be Bradford’s last snap of the game, and Wilson on backup Kellen Clemens on the Rams’ next possession.
New England was ahead by so much late in the game that backup quarterback Ryan Mallett got his first NFL snaps.
The Patriots had at least 350 yards of total offense (473) for the 17th straight regular-season game, breaking an NFL record set by the Rams in 1999-2000.
Brady, like other members of the Patriots, was relieved to win in big fashion.
“It feels good,” he said. “We’ve been close a few times but haven’t closed the deal. We were playing the team today that beat two of the teams we lost to. They got off to a good start [but] we countered and never looked back.”