Welcome to the eighth installment of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-but-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots' weekly matchup that runs right here every Friday at noon. This Sunday, the 4-3 Patriots travel to London to take on the 3-4 St. Louis Rams, who have become a more disciplined team under new coach Jeff Fisher. Fisher always seemed to have the Titans ready to play against the Patriots during his decade-plus in Tennessee, and his new team has accomplished something Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Co. could not do -- they defeated Seattle, albeit at home. A win would send the Patriots into the bye week with the lead in the division. Let's get to the rest of the preview.
THREE PLAYERS OTHER THAN TOM BRADY THAT I'LL BE WATCHING
1. Sam Bradford: Despite the former No. 1 overall pick's obvious talent, the Rams have just the 24th-rated passing offense in the NFL, sandwiched between Christian Ponder and the Vikings and the Chiefs of the Matt Cassel/Brady Quinn two-headed debacle. But the Rams would be foolish to remain completely conservative against the Patriots' blundering 29th-ranked pass defense. The Rams' cast of receivers doesn't exactly provide flashbacks to the "Greatest Show on Turf'' days, but Chris Givens, who has 10 catches for 270 yards -- yes, math whizzes, that's 27.0 per catch -- should be able to get open behind the defense a time or two if given the chance.
2. Brandon Lloyd: By statistical standards, the Patriots' offense has been excellent -- it is first in the league in scoring (31 points per game) and total offense (436.1 yards per game). But to watch them from week to week is to know that they've had their battles of inconsistency, in part, I think, because of nagging injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the latter of whom apparently hasn't made the trip to London. Lloyd had a knack for the exceptional and a habit of making rudimentary mistakes, and he's coming off a subpar game against the Jets. Playing against a former team, he should have extra motivation and focus this week, and the Patriots are going to need him to be at his best.
3. Greg Zuerlein: The Rams' thunder-footed rookie kicker is already a hit in London -- they do seem to prefer kicking to throwing or catching over there. He started the season brilliantly, hitting his first 15 field-goal attempts, and even when he misses it's exciting -- included among his three off-target kicks against the Dolphins two weeks ago was a 66-yarder. He's got the leg to make one from that far, and perhaps it will happen Sunday.
THE FINAL DRIVE OF THE PATRIOTS' SUPER BOWL XXXVI VICTORY OVER THE RAMS? YEAH, YOU'RE GONNA WATCH THIS
Not that we ever need an excuse to watch this, but playing the Rams provides an easy one, so here it is -- the final 1 minute and 21 seconds of the greatest victory in franchise history. I agree the Snow Bowl was more aesthetically pleasing, but nothing tops winning your first Super Bowl in this manner. Let's walk through the final moments:
1:21: Rams receiver Ricky Proehl celebrates his tying touchdown on the sideline. For all of our gripes about the Patriots' recent issues with closing, keep in mind that the Rams erased a 14-point Patriots lead in slightly more than 10 minutes of the fourth quarter in this one. Of course, it was one of the great offenses in league history. But man, was it ever close to getting away.
1:21, as Tom Brady and the offense walk to the line of scrimmage: "With no timeouts, I think that the Patriots, with this field position, you have to just run the clock out, you have to play for overtime now.'' I can't imagine that John Madden was ever so wrong as he was at that moment.
:33 Brady hits J.R. Redmond for third time on the drive, and Redmond fights to convert his second down of the drive. Weird seeing Kevin Faulk standing on the sideline while Redmond, whose NFL career ended in 2004, makes the type of clutch plays that Faulk became famous for. Also: This, right here, is when it started to feel like Adam Vinatieri was going to get a chance.
:21: Brady to Troy Brown, 23 yards, and he gets out of bounds. Amazing how calm Brady looks -- you almost expect him to point out the ghost of John Candy in the stands. As for Brown, it was one more big play in a season full of them. Randy Moss was spectacular in 2007, but no one was more reliable than Troy Brown, 2001.
:14: Brady to Jermaine Wiggins for five crucial yards. Wonder if he yelled "WIGGS OUT!'' after the play.
:07: Brady spikes it. Here comes Vinatieri, who looks insanely calm. Madden: "I'll tell you, what Tom Brady just did gives me goosebumps." We'll take that as the mea culpa, big fella.
:07: Not that the Fox network was trying to jinx Vinatieri or anything, but they did show him missing a kick in pregame and flashed a graphic that said "Has Never Missed a Field Goal Indoors in Six-Year Career (24/24).
:00: Pat Summerall, with one of the most understated yet effective calls of a last-second, Super Bowl-winning field goal imaginable: "... and it's right down the pipe. [Pause.] Adam Vinatieri ... no time on the clock, and the Patriots have won Super Bowl 36." It doesn't quite deliver the chills of the joyous radio call by Gil and Gino, but man is that ever fun to relive.
Oh, and watch all the way to end, when Brady is pounding a bemused-looking Drew Bledsoe on the shoulder pads and yelling in the most awkward way imaginable, "We %**#*# won!" It's a great scene, a reminder of how naive Brady was. You have to figure he'd be more aware of Bledsoe's bittersweet perspective these days.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Hmmmm. It appears there is no major grievance this week. The Patriots survived against the Jets. Drew Magary has my usual gripes about fan entitlement covered (and then some) over at Deadspin. The above video reminds me that Ty Law should have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVI, but how can you complain about anything from that game, and besides, the statute of limitations has probably expired there. So I'll give you this, a mini-grievance: Here's hoping the proprietors of the Rams website learn how to spell Abbey Road before they depart London. On the plus side, Ringo has never looked better.
We'll start with Harold Jackson came over from the Rams in '78 to fill the void left by the Darryl Stingley tragedy and, though he was on the wrong side of 30, gave Steve Grogan a dual deep threat to Stanley Morgan in the late '70s and early '80s. In 1979, he had 1,013 yards receiving, averaging 22.5 yards per catch.
Then there was Henry Ellard, who had four straight 1,000-yard seasons for the Rams (1988-91) and closed his career as late-season roster-filler for the '98 Patriots, making five catches. Finally, we can't forget Torry Holt ...
... who got hurt and never played for the Patriots after signing as a free agent before the 2010 season but who still made a contribution to franchise lore by ducking for cover time and again during Super Bowl XXXVI.
Jackson, Ellard, and Holt had 2,313 catches between them during their NFL careers, and given the chance, they could probably do some damage against the Patriots' hapless defensive backfield Sunday.
PREDICTION, OR PICKING VINCE WILFORK OVER STEPHEN JACKSON IN 2004 WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO, BUT DAMN, THE BEN WATSON PICK STILL MAKES NO SENSE
Though the Rams' receiver corps doesn't have much name recognition beyond Danny Amendola (who may not and probably shouldn't play after suffering a scary collarbone injury just a few weeks ago), at this point, it would be foolish to expect the Patriots pass defense to shut down any opponent based on what we've seen so far. Bradford will hit on at least one deep ball at some point. On the other side of the ball, Chris Long and the rest of the Rams should at the very least play the Patriots physically. (Think Cortland Finnegan has decided which Patriots receiver he is going to cheap shot this week? Or is the correct answer "all of them''?) That's not my way of saying the Patriots are primed to be upset. That's my way of saying they're going to win, but probably not as handily as one might have expected when we first looked at this game on the schedule. They'll go into the bye week with five wins, three losses, a lot of reasons for optimism, and a lot of things to work on. Patriots 27, Rams 16
(Last week's prediction: Patriots 37, Jets 13. Final score: Patriots 29, Jets 26, OT. Season record: 4-3.)
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.