So much can change in two years’ time. It wasn’t too long ago that Bill Belichick’s Patriots beat Sean McVay’s Rams in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever. Sure, Thursday night’s contest between Los Angeles and New England wasn’t the Super Bowl, but it held major postseason ramifications for both sides—more significantly for the Patriots, though. This time, the Rams won, 24-3, retaining their lead atop the NFC West for another week, while avenging their championship loss. But for the Patriots, the result dealt a significant blow to their playoff chances and magnified issues that Belichick will need to address in the near future to fix the franchise’s trajectory.
At 6-7, the Patriots are on track to miss the postseason for the first time since 2008, which would mark only the fourth time since Belichick took over the team in 2000. They will finish with single-digit wins for the first time since 2002. All season, New England’s deficiencies on both sides of the ball have been glaring; the team entered Thursday ranked 23rd in both offensive and defensive DVOA categories, according to Football Outsiders. Quarterback Cam Newton got off to an encouraging start this season, but has seen his play dramatically fall off. Fox’s Jay Glazer reported prior to the game that Newton has been playing through an abdomen injury, which Newton downplayed during a postgame interview. But Newton appeared restricted as his play suffered Thursday night. He completed nine of 16 passes for 119 yards and one pick-six, giving him five passing TDs and 10 interceptions this season. For the second time this year, Belichick benched Newton in the second half of a blowout in favor of backup Jarrett Stidham. New England’s underwhelming receiving corps have always capped Newton’s potential in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s offense, but the quarterback’s continued struggles and the Patriots’ lack of skill talent was amplified against the Rams, who boast one of the NFL’s best defensive units.
Los Angeles registered six sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and generated pressure on 55.2 percent of New England’s dropbacks. The Rams held the Patriots to only 3.8 yards per play, 113 net passing yards (3.9 yards per attempt), and 107 net rushing yards (3.7 yards per attempt). Los Angeles defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, a relative unknown entering the year, has put together an outstanding unit anchored by two-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and former All-Pro Jalen Ramsey. The Rams entered the game fifth in defensive DVOA and limited the Patriots to one field goal out of four red zone trips. All of the praise that Belichick heaped upon L.A.’s defense coming into the contest proved to be warranted, and the performance set up the offense for success.
Similarly to their 2018 squad, the Rams offense relied on its run game Thursday, but how it manufactures yardage and with whom has changed. At different points this year, veteran running backs Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson Jr. have led the Rams’ backfield. But on Thursday, second-round rookie Cam Akers earned the lionshare of carries, as he rushed for 171 yards. He found success as McVay employed 12-personnel (one RB, two TE, two WR) formations on 69 percent of offensive snaps (the second-highest rate under McVay, per Next Gen Stats), straying from his favored 11-personnel (one RB, one TE, three WR) groupings. Additionally, McVay mixed in gap-scheme run concepts to complement L.A.’s effective outside-zone run game, keeping the Patriots defense off-balance. As a result, the Rams seemingly got whatever they wanted on the ground.
During a postgame interview with Fox’s Erin Andrews, Donald explained that it felt good to get revenge on New England for the Rams’ Super Bowl LIII defeat, in which they amassed only three points. “Every single week, it’s somebody new making big plays, making game-changing plays,” Donald said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s not one or two guys. It’s all 11.”
The same can’t be said for the Patriots, who in their first season since Tom Brady’s departure haven’t been able to rely on any single player or consistent performances out of any unit aside from their special teams. Following Thursday’s loss, New England has a 4 percent chance to make the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model. Meanwhile Brady’s Buccaneers have an 85 percent chance to make the playoffs and have a roster built to contend for a Super Bowl. The Patriots are not vying for their own division, having been usurped by the Bills and Dolphins, the latter led by Brian Flores, a Belichick disciple. It’s been a strange NFL season. But the Patriots’ freefall from contender to fringe playoff team is stunning. And the questions surrounding the franchise moving forward are going to only grow louder.
After the game, the questioning began, starting with whether Belichick would switch to Stidham behind center next week. Belichick flatly told reporters he wouldn’t, stating that “Cam is our quarterback.” Newton, the 31-year-old former league MVP, signed a one-year deal this offseason that initially seemed ingenious. But even as Newton’s struggles have been at the forefront of the Patriots shortcomings this year, there are issues across the roster that will need to be addressed—the offensive flaws don’t solely rest with Newton. New England has not succeeded in evaluating young receiver talent over the past decade, and the current crop has underwhelmed. Former first-round pick N’Keal Harry (three catches, 49 yards), Damiere Byrd (five catches, 48 yards), and Jakobi Meyers (four catches, 47 yards) helmed the Patriots’ passing game Thursday, as they have most of the year with veteran Julian Edelman injured. Additionally, the offensive line has been inconsistent and has been hampered by injuries throughout the year, and a lack of cohesion is still apparent even at this stage in the year. New England’s defense was perhaps among the most heavily impacted groups when players opted out during the offseason, too.
These issues presently cloud the team’s future. Thursday wasn’t the final nail in the coffin of the Patriots’ rule over the league, but the defeat was a haymaker that dropped them to the mat. Last week’s 45-0 win against the Chargers might have been enough to convince someone that New England still had some fight left. Yet, as surreal as it is, it’s more likely that this run is, finally, down for the count for good. In 2002, the Patriots beat the Rams to capture the first of six titles. Six times during that span, they defeated Los Angeles, with their last championship bookending the first. Perhaps it’s a more ironic than poetic ending to the Patriots’ historic run, but Thursday’s result reemphasized the point that it’s very clear we’ve reached the end.