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What To Watch For As Patriots Take On Rams In London

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Cortland Finnegan (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Cortland Finnegan (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots and Rams are in London this weekend to show the people of England and anyone else in Europe who may be interested just what the NFL has to offer.

How the trip across the Atlantic affects the teams, if at all, is anyone’s guess. The Patriots technically have experience, having played in London three years ago, though most players from that team are no longer on the roster. The coaches, though, decided that a Thursday night red eye was the preferable travel decision, while the Rams elected to fly over on Monday.

Because there’s no right or wrong when it comes to travel schedules, let’s get into what you can watch for Sunday when these two teams kick off for some American football at Wembley Stadium.

1. Can Patriots contain Steven Jackson?
In a word, probably. The Patriots, for all their defensive woes, really haven’t had too much trouble stopping opponents’ threats on the ground. Overall, the Patriots allow just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt this season, which ranks third in the NFL, just .2 yards behind the NFL-leading Buccaneers. They held Chris Johnson to a ridiculous four yards on 11 carries in Week 1, held C.J. Spiller to 33 yards and Fred Jackson to 29 yards in Week 4, held Willis McGahee to 51 yards in Week 5, contained Marshawn Lynch to just 41 yards on 15 carries in Week 6 and held Shonn Greene to 54 yards on 16 carries last week. Only Ray Rice had a day against the Patriots this season, finishing with 101 yards on 20 carries in Week 3.

For the Rams, though, it’s imperative that Jackson try to be the exception. With Danny Amendola likely not playing, the Rams’ receiving unit isn’t exactly loaded with Hall of Famers. Sure, having top-tier receivers isn’t usually a prerequisite to torching the Patriots’ defense, but Jackson can be the most important piece of the Rams’ offense. It’s up to the Patriots to stop him.

2. Patriots Offense Putting It Together
The Patriots’ offense ranks near the top of the league in most categories, but still, there’s that feeling that the unit just hasn’t clicked to the point where the players are firing on all cylinders. Last week, it was Brandon Lloyd’s drops and a lack of a running game. In the past three weeks, the offense has sustained long periods of inefficiency, turning games that could be blowout victories into close wins or even losses.

Those problems have plagued them both at home and on the road. Perhaps a trip to a foreign country on some  neutral ground will work to help Tom Brady and his crew figure things out. That is infinitely more possible if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels doesn’t feel compelled to show the locals what a trick play is.

(As an interesting nugget, the Patriots have gained 350 or more  yards of offense in 16 consecutive games, which ties the St. Louis Rams for most ever. It’s not really a significant record, but it is interesting at least that if they break it, they’ll be doing so against the team that set the mark.)

3. Feisty Finnegan
Cortland Finnegan owns a well-earned reputation of being the guy who just gets under opponent’s skin. He’s so good at it (or he’s so awful, depending on your point of view) that he baited the normally peaceful Andre Johnson into a near-fistfight two seasons ago, and he frustrated Redskins receiver Josh Morgan so badly earlier this year that it arguably won the game for the Rams. Morgan threw a ball at Finnegan’s head after a play, pushing the Redskins out of field-goal range in a three-point game.

So who will Finnegan try to irritate on Sunday? Wes Welker might be his first choice, though Welker hardly seems the type to let anything bother him. How many times have you seen Welker nearly decapitated in the middle of the field, only to pop up and make a catch on the very next play? You can’t phase him. Rob Gronkowski, for all his goofiness, plays disciplined, as does Aaron Hernandez. Here in New England, we don’t yet know if Brandon Lloyd can be mentally thrown off his game, but we do know he likes to smile while making diving catches, so he seems pretty happy-go-lucky.

So we don’t know who Finnegan’s main target will be … but he better hope that he doesn’t upset Logan Mankins. I don’t care who you are; you don’t want to be the one who makes Mr. Mankins angry. It generally doesn’t end well for you.

4. Getting After Brady
Tom Brady is without question the biggest star known to folks in London heading into this one, but it will be the work of Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder that will dictate what kind of performance the quarterback has.

The Rams boast two beastly edge rushers in Robert Quinn and Chris Long. Quinn, a first-round pick in 2011, has seven sacks already, while Long, the No. 2 overall pick in ’08, has four sacks of his own. As a team, the Rams have 21 sacks, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. The Patriots rank in the middle of the pack with 14 sacks allowed, but Brady has looked bad at times ducking away from pressure that isn’t actually coming. If the Rams can get a couple of sacks early on, it could affect Brady from the get-go.

Perhaps the Patriots counteract that Rams strength with heavy doses of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, but regardless, what goes on at the line will warrant watching early on to determine what kind of game will be played.

Tune in to the Patriots-Rams game Sunday afternoon at 1pm on WBZ-TV and 98.5 The Sports Hub. Pregame coverage beings at 10am on the Hub with Patriots Preview, with three hours of post game coverage following the game. WBZ-TV kicks off their coverage at 11:30am with a special edition of  Patriots All Access, and full post game coverage with Patriots 5th Quarter.

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