Well, it's been more than 10 years.
On one hand, it doesn't feel like it was that long ago. On the other, holy crap I totally forgot about Yo Murphy. That was a long time ago.
Since then, the paths diverged. It was the beginning of an era for the Patriots in Tom Brady's first year as a full-time starter and Belichick's second as head coach of the Pats. For the Rams, it was the slow denouement of the Greatest Show on Turf as the team would crawl through the wilderness for years trying to recapture the magic.
Are we back yet? Not entirely. But it certainly feels like we're closer than we have been in a long, long time.
Maybe this is the coda. Maybe this is the circle coming full. Maybe it's fitting that this game is played at a neutral site, a global eye squarely on the two former titans of the game, one who sustained their majesty, one who has wallowed in mediocrity and worse for far too long.
I hope it is. I think it could be too.
St. Louis Rams, 3-4, 4th - NFC West
New England Patriots, 4-3, 1st - AFC East
Oct. 28, 1:00 p.m. ET - CBS
STL-NE in red - click to enlarge
NE pass - 186/285, 65.26 cmp% (10th), 2,008 yds, 12 TD, 3 INT
7.38 yds/att, 11.31 yds/cmp, 286.86 yds/gm (5th), 46.8% passing offense DVOA (2nd)
STL pass D - 165/249, 66.27 cmp% (28th), 1,579 yds, 7 TD, 8 INT
6.91 yds/att, 10.42 yds/cmp, 225.57 yds/gm (14th), -5.9% passing defense DVOA (9th)
Well, its going to be a hell of a challenge for any team as long as Tom Brady is Tom Brady. Eventually, age will catch up with him. It hasn't yet. And with Wes Welker having ushered in Brady's statistical domination, it's the tight end combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez that is carrying the domination forward (though Hernandez didn't make the trip to London due to an ankle injury).
The interesting thing for me this week is the pass defense strategy. Against the Packers, the Rams made sure to keep the top on the field. Aaron Rodgers was more than happy to comply, dinking and dunking and screening and safety valving his way down the field. Should they try that strategy again, Brady is similarly capable of reading the defense, assessing the weak spot and ensuring he makes the best decision regardless of who the target is (in four rushes and one reception, John Kuhn had 32 yards in four plays. That's 8 yards per play for John Kuhn....). The secondary's healthy, so no concerns there. If there is one, it's if Janoris Jenkins is in for a repeat of last week's rookie reminding performance...let's hope not.
NE run - 248 att, 1045 yds, 4.21 yds/att (11th), 149.29 yds/gm (5th), 10 TD, 2 RB fumb
14.1% rushing offense DVOA (4th)
STL run D - 175 att, 692 yds, 3.95 yds/att (13th), 98.86 yds/gm (t-10th), 6 TD, 0 RB fumb
-10.0% rushing defense DVOA (15th)
There may not have been a more important three final weeks of the 2011 regular season than Stevan Ridley's...at least for the Pats' long term future. Over the final three games, Ridley had 39 rushes for 210 yards. Assuming the primary position in the Pats' rushing game, Ridley's had a couple really good games.
It makes for an interesting matchup then with a Rams rushing defense that is playing much better. It goes pretty much without saying then, the Rams need to win here. So I said it anyway.
NE O-line - 14 sacks allowed (t-16th), 33 QB hits allowed
4.38 Adj. Line Yds (5th), 5.3% Adj. Sack Rate (12th)
STL D-line - 21 sacks (t-5th), 37 QB hits
3.55 ALY allowed (9th), 6.7% Adj. Sack Rate (15th)
Another must-win. OTs Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer are beatable. And the interior of Dan Connelly, Ryan Wendell and Logan Mankins (who is injured pretty much everywhere below his abdomen) have shown to be imperfect.
That being the case, the Rams have to apply pressure both on the ends with Chris Long and Robert Quinn, but also through the middle with Michael Brockers and whatever rotation Jeff Fisher uses between Kendall Langford, Jermelle Cudjo and Kellen Heard. And if they can clog in the running game, it will allow James Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar to play the pass with more conviction.
STL pass - 132/220, 60.00 cmp% (19th), 1,463 yds, 8 TD, 6 INT
7.25 yds/att, 12.08 yds/cmp, 209.00 yds/gm (24th), 5.4% passing offense DVOA (20th)
NE pass D - 169/260, 65.00 cmp% (25th), 2,030 yds, 16 TD, 7 INT
8.08 yds/att, 12.44 yds/cmp, 290.00 yds/gm (29th), 23.0% passing defense DVOA (29th)
Well, here's your official Sam Bradford Gauge Game of the Century. No real excuse against a secondary that without Patrick Chung is ripe to be eaten up. Between the two safeties Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson, there's not much cover skill. And whomever CB Kyle Arrington is covering needs to be the first read for Bradford often. I mean like really often.
As I'm writing this, Brandon Gibson is rumored to be downgraded to questionable with some kind of illness...damn pub food. With Danny Amendola still on the mend, he's likely the top option when he's on the field. We know Chris Givens affects the game though. The real question for me is who can step up between Steve Smith, Brian Quick and TE Lance Kendricks. And it's a big question too.
STL run - 178 att, 743 yds, 4.17 yds/att (12th), 106.14 yds/gm (12th), 2 TD, 1 RB fumb
-3.3% rushing offense DVOA (13th)
NE run D - 180 att, 602 yds, 3.34 yds/att (2nd), 86.00 yds/gm (8th), 3 TD, 2 RB fumb
-25.9% rushing defense DVOA (4th)
Interesting matchup here. Strategy-wise, it's a question of whether Belichick and DC Matt Patricia elect to soften the LB trio of Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower to prep for the pass. The first quarter will likely have a lot to do with that, if the Rams can move the ball in the air. It's a key question for Hightower especially. You don't want to run in his direction. Ever.
But you can run the other way, and I expect Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson to do just that. Still, with the pass/run ratio being what it was last week despite an impressive pair of limited performances from the Rams' two RBs, I don't know how many carries they'll get.
STL O-line - 21 sacks allowed (30th), 41 QB hits allowed
3.84 Adj. Line Yds (22nd), 7.8% Adj. Sack Rate (25th)
NE D-line - 15 sacks (16th), 27 QB hits
3.45 ALY allowed (5th), 5.9% Adj. Sack Rate (21st)
Nod and spit. Moving along.
This week's top 3 storylines brought to you by my three favorite hot sauces:
Forget the Asian stuff. I like me some good ol' American Huy Fong sriracha. Actually, any product coming from Huy Fong is A+. The lovechild of David Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who arrived to LA in 1980, sriracha has slowly taken hold across this country. Bon Appetit named it the Ingredient of the Year for 2010, and for good reason. Now for those of you who are capsaicin-challenged, you probably need to let this one slide. It's not weak. It's got pop.
The Rams' D-line needs an infusion of sriracha-inspired play on Sunday. They can't relent. They have to be physical with the Pats' O-line and impose their will. We know Quinn and Long are capable of bending the corners to get to the QB. That won't be enough tomorrow. They need to outmuscle and outpush New England's blockers for four quarters.
Personal disclosure: I went through a phase from about '98-'04 where I put Trappey's on everything. I mean EVERYTHING. I had a bottle in my car. I had a bottle in my locker at school. I had backup bottles in case my primary bottles failed for any reason. I had different varieties. I had different sizes. EVERYTHING I ATE GOT SOME DOSAGE OF TRAPPEY'S.
To build off of the above sriracha/O-line point, the Rams need to win with physicality. It worked against the Redskins with a personnel set that was begging to be manhandled. That's the case tomorrow. The Patriots' impressive finesse and up-tempo offense needs to be met with its kryptonite: smashmouth football. The running game? Run em over. The passing game? Take those corners and safeties on every play. On defense? Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit. You already know. Make it hurt. Then make it hurt again. Then make it hurt before the ball's snapped. To know Trappey's is to know pain. Embrace it.
I'm not sure when I first had Crystal hot sauce, but there's a picture of me at Thanksgiving when I was 8 and I'm soaking my rice dressing and fried turkey with it. I put some on some fried fish about four hours ago.
I was born with Crystal, and I will die with Crystal. I'm cool with that. It's at the center of my hot sauce palette, and it's the basis of everything I've come to know and love about hot sauces.
I, and we, need Sam Bradford to step up and become Crystal hot sauce. He's the central, most important player on this team. We need to know that every time we see him, we know he'll be exactly what we need. Sure, he may not always match up perfectly with what he's paired with. But we need to know that he's our go-to. Because if he's not our Crystal, we need to start looking for one.
The Bradford questioning is reaching new heights, as exhibited by Van's persistent, yet fair, criticisms and concerns. They're valid. You put Crystal on Spam and sure, it tastes like a Spilly creation. It doesn't mean the Crystal's the problem, but it doesn't turn spam into foie gras. But not everyone can afford or has access to foie gras. Sometimes, you have to put Crystal on a turkey sandwich, and suddenly it's the best damn turkey sandwich you've ever had.
Be Crystal, Sammy.