FOXBOROUGH — On the surface, the Patriots’ 26-10 win over the Rams was one big, happy party at Gillette Stadium.
The 2001 Super Bowl team was honored, Tom Brady earned his record-breaking 201st career victory, and the Patriots coasted to victory against a punchless Rams team that gained 96 total yards through the game’s first 58 minutes.
But dig beneath the surface of those smiles and there was a little bit of frustration simmering on the offensive side of the ball.
Sunday’s win was Day 1 in Life Without Rob Gronkowski, and it went OK for the Patriots’ offense, but could’ve gone better.
“There were a lot of plays I thought we left out there,” Brady said. “I thought we could’ve done a lot better job finishing drives. I would like to put more points on the board than we did. But it was a good win.”
This was a game where the numbers can be deceiving. The Patriots gained 402 yards? Sounds great. Brady threw for 269 yards and a touchdown? No problem there. The run game chewed up 133 yards on the ground at 4.6 yards a clip? Hard to beat that. Brady spread the ball around to seven receivers? That’s the kind of team effort they’ll need to replace Gronkowski.
But the context behind those numbers is important, and explains why the Patriots weren’t thrilled with Sunday’s win.
The Patriots had 12 offensive possessions and ran 75 plays, yet scored only two touchdowns. Brady needed 46 passing attempts to get those 269 yards, for a pedestrian average of 5.8 yards per attempt.
The Patriots were 4 of 16 on third downs, which never makes Bill Belichick happy (though they were 2 for 2 on fourth down). Take away LeGarrette Blount’s 43-yard touchdown run (and Brady’s two kneel-downs), and the Patriots rushed 26 times for 92 yards, an average of 3.5 yards per run.
The offense was fine, but it certainly could have been a lot better. Frankly, the Patriots should have won by 30 points.
But too many of their drives ended in field goals (four) and punts (six). And it leaves Patriots observers wondering if the offense will be able to figure out their Gronk-less equation by the playoffs, to overcome a good defense such as Denver’s or Baltimore’s (next week’s opponent).
“You always want to be able to finish a little bit more in the red zone,” receiver Chris Hogan said. “Later down the line, we’re going to want to be scoring touchdowns instead of field goals.”
The Rams certainly deserve some credit here. This was a defense that entered the game ranked 12th in the NFL in points allowed and ninth in total yards, so the Patriots weren’t playing a slouch.
The Rams love to blitz and get after the quarterback — defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been in the NFL for decades and can match wits with anyone — so Brady’s ability to get the ball out quickly was important. The Patriots called more quick-passing plays than usual — running back screens, wide receiver screens, and quick hitches — to avoid the hits and try to catch the Rams in a big blitz. The Rams did a good job of swarming to the football and not overrunning plays.
Brady didn’t turn the ball over or take a sack, and only absorbed four hits on 47 passing plays (he had one scramble for 3 yards). So in that sense, his performance was great.
“You saw a lot of quick passing game out of Tom,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “In my mind, it is an extension of the run game. You know, they do a great job adjusting.”
But without Gronkowski, the passing game was stuck in neutral for much of the game. Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell certainly came to play, combining for 22 of Brady’s 46 targets. Edelman caught eight passes for 101 yards, and Mitchell caught eight for 82.
Brady spread out the ball well to his other targets, but the production wasn’t there. Hogan did catch a 14-yard touchdown, but only had four catches for 23 yards. Danny Amendola had three catches for 30 yards. Dion Lewis and James White combined for just 29 yards on eight catches.
And Martellus Bennett, supposedly the Patriots’ Gronk insurance policy, was pretty invisible. Still dealing with an ankle injury, Bennett didn’t streak down the seams or open up the field for other receivers the way Gronkowski does. He caught two of the four passes thrown his way, but gained all of 4 yards.
We’ll have to watch the film to see how Bennett did overall, but he had two holding penalties — one that turned a third-and-1 into third-and-11 (Brady converted to Amendola, anyway), and one that wiped out an 8-yard run for Blount on second and 6.
Bennett declined to speak to reporters before leaving the locker room — behavior that’s usually reserved for a loss, not after a comfortable 16-point win.
“I mean, you get  points, so that’s not terrible,” Belichick said. “But, you know, we left some plays out on the field, and they did some things to make it hard for us. They did a good job in the second half keeping us out of the end zone and putting us in long-yardage situations.”
The Patriots came away with a win, so there’s no reason for doom and gloom. But the 16-point win over the Rams left the players with a bit of an awkward feeling, too, knowing they need to be better moving forward.
“I don’t think we were on the same page like we needed to be, between myself and some of the skill players,” Brady acknowledged. “There were some plays that I thought we could’ve executed better, so it is frustrating when you expect a higher level than what we’re getting out there.”