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By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Not so long ago, it was prudent to wonder whether the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams would be neighbors in the Top 10 of the 2009 NFL Draft.
As the teams prepare to square off at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, it has suddenly become appropriate to question whether the Pats and Rams will each fill out lines on the 2008 postseason bracket.
The fall of the New England empire was predicted by many after team icon Tom Brady was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 1, and the club's subsequent performances in blowout losses to the Dolphins (38-13) and Chargers (30-10) seemed to indicate that the Patriots' standing as a member of the NFL elite had all but eroded.
Then, the Patriots went out and made a major statement against the Denver Broncos this past Monday night, offering up a 41-7 domination of the AFC West leader that put Bill Belichick's squad back in the good graces of the NFL pundits.
Quarterback Matt Cassel, who had been forced to field questions about his job security in the preceding week, was a generally outstanding 18-of-24 passing for 185 yards and three touchdowns (including two to Randy Moss) without a turnover in the win.
Meanwhile, New England running backs Sammy Morris (16 carries, 138 yards, 1 TD), formerly anonymous rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis (13 carries, 65 yards, 1 TD), and Kevin Faulk (4 carries, 50 yards) combined for 253 ground yards on just 33 combined carries, which breaks down to a whopping 7.7 yards per rush.
Not to be outdone was a defense - one that many observers swore was on the decline - that harassed the Broncos into five turnovers, came up with three sacks, and held a Denver team that was averaging just under 27 points per game to its lowest total of the season.
Like the Patriots, the Rams also enter Week 8 amid an era of good feelings.
St. Louis moved to 2-0 under head coach Jim Haslett last week, proving that a preceding win at Washington was no fluke in a 34-14 beat-down of the once- media darling Dallas Cowboys.
The Rams, who entered the game ranked last in the NFL in both scoring offense and scoring defense, looked to have turned a corner against Dallas.
Offensively, running back Steven Jackson (160 yards, 3 TD) had his best day of the year, and Marc Bulger (14-of-19 passing, 173 yards, 1 TD) was back to his pre-2006 efficiency level.
Defensively, between the Cowboys' first drive of the day, which resulted in a touchdown, and their last, which elicited a garbage-time TD, the Dallas offense ran 43 plays, totaled 162 yards, scored zero points and turned the ball over four times.
All of which has led some in St. Louis to the conclusion that Haslett, who took over when Scott Linehan was fired after Week 4, has the Rams back on a track that could lead directly to the postseason.
The Rams enter Week 8 in second place in the NFC West, just two back of the division-leading Arizona Cardinals (4-2), who will visit St. Louis next week.
St. Louis has a 5-4 edge in its all-time regular season series with the Patriots, but had a four-game winning streak in the series halted with a 40-22 home loss in 2004. The Rams were 24-17 road winners in the previous regular season meeting, in Foxboro, in 2001. The Rams are 3-1 at New England all-time, and haven't lost a road game in the series since the teams' initial meeting in 1974.
The most memorable matchup between the clubs was a postseason battle, Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans, which the Patriots won in upset fashion, 20-17.
Belichick is 3-1 in his career against the Rams, including the Super Bowl victory. The Rams' Haslett has a 0-2 record against both Belichick and the Patriots in his career.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Jackson (508 rushing yards, 4 TD, 25 receptions) showed why the Rams invested millions in a new contract for him this past summer, as the Cowboys showed little clue how to stop the former first-rounder. Jackson posted 176 yards on 27 total touches for the day, but emerged with a thigh problem that has him questionable for Week 8. If he can't go, Travis Minor (17 rushing yards, 5 receptions) would likely offer the team a dramatic drop-off at the position. In that case, St. Louis would have to utilize more of Marc Bulger and the passing game. Protecting Bulger (828 passing yards, 3 TD, 2 INT), who has already been sacked 18 times in five games this year, will be job number one for the team. If he gets time, rookie Donnie Avery (15 receptions, 1 TD) and veteran Torry Holt (23 receptions, 1 TD) will be the primary targets. Avery, the first receiver taken in the 2008 Draft, had a breakout game against the Cowboys with five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. Holt leads the Rams in receiving yards (261), but has not registered more than 76 yards in a game this year.
Passing the football might be a prudent approach against a New England defense that has had its struggles in both the secondary and pass rush this season. Patriots defensive backs Brandon Meriweather (19 tackles, 3 INT) and James Sanders (26 tackles, 1 INT) both had interceptions of Denver's Jay Cutler on Monday, but the team also lost secondary leader and safety Rodney Harrison for the year with a quadriceps tear. New England has just 10 sacks on the year, but notched three - including one-and-a-half from end Richard Seymour (17 tackles, 2.5 sacks) - on Monday night. Outside linebacker Adalius Thomas (22 tackles, 3.5 sacks) remains the unit's most feared pass rusher, but has just 1.5 sacks in his last four games combined. The Patriots rank 19th (117.2 yards per game) in the league against the run as Week 8 commences. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork (23 tackles) and inside linebackers Tedy Bruschi (31 tackles) and Jerod Mayo (42 tackles) have been among the club's best ground game stoppers this season.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Just six days removed from their 257-yard ground assault against the Broncos, it is as yet unclear who will be running the football for the Patriots on Sunday. Morris (307 rushing yards, 4 TD, 12 receptions) would seem the top candidate, but left Monday's game early with a knee problem and is questionable. Green-Ellis did a good job filling in, in his first NFL appearance no less, but the probable return of LaMont Jordan (106 rushing yards), who had been battling a calf injury, could further alter the depth chart. Less of a question will be the components of the passing game, which will again include Cassel (1095 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT), Moss (25 receptions, 4 TD), and Wes Welker (42 receptions) primarily. Welker had six catches for 63 yards and his first touchdown of the year against Denver. Tight end Benjamin Watson (6 receptions) also made his presence felt with three grabs for 40 yards. Cassel has been sacked 25 times already this season, second-most in the league behind only the 49ers' J.T. O'Sullivan.
New England will want to establish the running game against a Rams unit that ranks just 30th in NFL rushing defense (161.5 yards per game) and is surrendering 5.0 yards per rush. Last week, St. Louis allowed Marion Barber to compile 100 yards on just 18 carries for the afternoon. Linebackers Pisa Tinoisamoa (37 tackles, 1 sack) and Will Witherspoon (33 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are 1-2 on the team in stops, and tackle Adam Carriker (11 tackles) has been the club's most reliable run-stopper up front. Carriker is questionable for Sunday with an ankle problem, however. The Rams also rank a subpar 25th in the league against the pass (231.2 yards per game), but intercepted Brad Johnson three times last week and sacked him on three occasions as well. Ends Leonard Little (10 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and James Hall (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks) accounted for the three sacks, while productive safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (26 tackles, 3 INT) posted his second and third interceptions in the past two weeks. Cornerbacks Fakhir Brown (13 tackles) and Jason Craft (18 tackles) will likely be responsible for slowing Moss, Welker, and the New England wideout corps.
Owners of Steven Jackson were thrilled to see his production against the Cowboys (if they chose to start him), but were dismayed by his injury status coming off the win. Monitor the injury report to make sure he'll go. If he won't, don't think about starting any of the Rams' far inferior backups. Rookie Avery was a big waiver-wire pickup this week, and makes for a decent flex option against a Patriots secondary that has had its struggles. Bulger and Holt are probably best kept on the bench, as is the St. Louis defense, but kicker Josh Brown should get some opportunities.
This is a good week to start Patriots passing principles, since Cassel, Moss, Welker and Watson should put up some numbers against a Rams secondary that remains weak on paper. The situation with the running backs is complicated, since New England is unlikely to reveal the possibility of Morris playing on Sunday. If you own either Morris, Jordan, or Green-Ellis, you may just have to roll the dice. The Patriots forced five turnovers on Monday night, so the defense is a solid play, as is kicker Stephen Gostkowski.
The Rams will really get the NFL world's attention if they come away with a win at New England, since the Patriots showed on Monday night that they can still pack a wallop, particularly at home. But there is reason to believe that St. Louis simply caught Dallas napping last week, and the notion that the Rams are going to become consistent winners in 2008 doesn't quite match up to the team's talent level at the moment. Are the Patriots going to run away and hide for the second time in six days? Probably not, since the Rams will make the offensive and defensive adjustments that the Broncos did not. But New England knows it needs to win games like this in order to keep its hopes for another AFC East title within reach, and will show enough focus to keep Haslett and company at arm's length throughout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 26, Rams 10
10/23 15:46:12 ET
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