FOXBOROUGH — There is nothing worse than a losable game becoming a winnable game, and you lose it anyway.
Even worse, when you lose the losable-then-winnable game thanks to a bunch of killing turnovers, you would have preferred to simply get blown out.
To watch what the St. Louis Rams have done to some of their opponents in the Kurt Warner Era is nothing short of frightening. It’s one thing to make the difficult look easy, but how quickly the Rams can light up defenses (and scoreboards) leaves you with your mouth hanging wide open. Michael Jordan (in his Chicago Bulls days) could do this. Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky could also.
So tonight at Foxborough Stadium, you have a Patriot squad that held the Rams to only 24 points. Do you know how difficult that is to do? Try getting through an entire baseball game against Pedro Martinez and not have him whiff at least ten of your guys.
But the Rams only gave up 17. The Patriots made lots of plays tonight that, on many other nights, would have been good enough to upset the Rams. But the Patriots committed three costly turnovers, all of them killers, and one of them changed the course of the entire game.
The Patriots are much improved, no question. But they are not yet ready for prime time. And on this Sunday night prime time showcase, they played well, but just poor enough to head home with an “L”.
And you can point directly at the turnovers as the key to this game.
Antowain Smith was inconsolable after the game. No argument here. Somewhere among his grief should be a lot of shame and embarrassment. He says that he cost his team the game. He’s very right. Whereas last week he sealed the win, tonight he sealed the loss.
Late in the second quarter, with the Patriots up 10-7, the Patriots embarked on a nifty 12-play, 64-yard drive that brought them to the Ram 4, first and goal. On this drive, Smith had run six times for ten yards. Nothing special here, except that two of those runs were on third and short which did pick up the first downs.
So, on first and goal, Smith gets the call. He bursts up the middle to the Ram 1. Suddenly, we see a bunch of Ram players pointing to the other end zone. Your Patriot heart began to sink just as suddenly.
Sure enough, Smith failed to cradle the ball. He fell on top of London Fletcher, and the ball dropped out of his hands. Aeneas Williams would make the recovery amidst a dogpile of players. The Patriots went from a sure touchdown to nothing at all to show for their best drive of the night.
Bill Belichick sent out the red flag, but replay was not conclusive enough to overturn. This was not the problem, though. The problem was the violation of one of the cardinal rules of football, and that is “two hands on the football”. Smith picked a lousy time to forget this rule, and this play is just the latest in a long line of aggravating, game-losing plays that have plagued this franchise since Bill Parcells left.
The Rams took over at their three. You can guess what happened next. What was so demoralizing was how quickly they traversed the 97 yards. The drive sheet reads “eight plays, 97 yards, 1:41 time of possession”. That’s like a 1970s car that gets 60 miles per gallon.
Jeff Robinson, 22-yard pass. Ricky Proehl, 20-yard pass. Proehl, 19-yard pass. Proehl, 10-yard pass. Roman Phifer caught for holding Marshall Faulk, another five yards. Faulk, seven-yard pass. Six plays, 83 yards, and we’re finally at second down. Yikes. Two plays later, Faulk catches a nine-yard scoring toss.
It was 14-10 Rams at the time, but it could have been 17-7 Patriots, and a completely different complexion to the game. The Smith fumble cost the Patriots a comfortable halftime lead (or at least a 17-14 lead if Warner has a last-minute scoring drive anyway), and took a great deal of wind out of the Patriot sails.
Tom Brady put up good numbers, but did not have a particularly good game. He was helped by some great catches by Troy Brown, and was hurt by two interceptions. One was not his fault and was not critical, but the other one was his fault and effectively killed off any chance of overcoming Smith’s fumble.
In the third quarter, the Rams took over at their 22, still leading 14-10. Warner hit Isaac Bruce for 25 yards to the Ram 47. Then Warner fumbled the snap on the next play, and Larry Izzo recovered. The Foxborough Stadium crowd came back to life, and hope re-emerged out of the hail of passing yards Warner was piling up.
On the next play, Brady drops back, feels the pash rush, and fires a dart over the middle right into the arms of Fletcher. He returned it 18 yards, and the Rams converted this into a 32-yard Jeff Wilkins field goal to make it 17-10.
This might go down as Brady’s poorest throw of his career. The “closest” Patriot was Marc Edwards, but in reality Brady threw the ball right to Fletcher. This pick pretty much leveled the Patriots, who despite making a decent fourth quarter run, had no gas left in the tank to prevent the Rams from salting away the final seven minutes and 37 seconds of the game.
Warner finished with 401 yards passing and three touchdowns. But these were the only three touchdowns the Rams scored all evening long. Three Ram receivers caught seven passes, Faulk had 153 all-purpose yards (but was held to only 83 yards rushing), and Bruce’s receiving yards exceeded the total of both Brown and David Patten’s combined. All this, and the Rams scored only 24 points.
Give a huge bit of credit to Belichick and the defense for putting the Patriots in a position to win this game. Warner did toss up huge numbers, but the Patriots induced two picks from Warner (one was returned 52 yards for a score by Terrell Buckley in the first quarter) and confused him throughout most of the first half.
But the turnovers killed the Patriots. The Rams also suffered three turnovers, but the Rams are the kind of team that can survive turnovers with ease. They are simply too loaded on offense.
This game won’t break the backs of the Patriots. They are at 5-5 and have a few more winnable games left on their schedule. They can be “commended” for playing so well against the likely NFC rep in Super Bowl XXXVII.
But they have to be gnashing their teeth for not “stealing” a win that was there to be stolen. The great teams don’t turn the ball over. The great teams don’t make mistakes like not protecting the football inside the opponent’s five yard line. The great teams don’t hand the ball back to the other team one play after taking the ball away from them.
These are tough lessons that the Patriots learn as they go. Brady will no doubt kick himself over that second pick (the first one was off of a deflection off Kevin Faulk and was not Brady’s fault). Smith at least showed great contrition over his fumble.
The Rams are the complete package. They have a great defense to go along with the game’s best offense. Their team speed on offense is perhaps unique in the entire history of the NFL. This is not like some fluke great game. This what the Rams do. Period.
And turning the ball over at the absolute wrong time is what the Patriots still do.
Until the team stops this sort of thing, there will be many more games like this.
Losable games becoming winnable, but are lost nonetheless.
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