Though injuries to their key players keep mounting, the New England Patriots have shown they’re still capable of a dominating performance.
Dominating the St. Louis Rams, though, no longer appears to be a sure thing.
The Patriots seek to follow up a convincing victory Sunday when they host the revitalized Rams, who look for their third consecutive upset under new coach Jim Haslett.
New England (4-2) had been struggling on offense ever since losing Tom Brady to a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of its opener, scoring fewer than 20 points in four of its first five games. However, the Patriots busted out Monday night in a 41-7 rout of Denver as Matt Cassel was an efficient 18-of-24 for 185 yards and a career-high three touchdowns - two of them to Randy Moss.
“I’d like to think that I continue to grow each and every week,” said Cassel, who matched his touchdown output from the season’s first five games. “The more you run this offense, the more comfortable you become.”
Adding to his comfort level, the Patriots ensured the game was never close by forcing five Broncos turnovers. The special teams unit chipped in as well, as Steven Gostkowski kicked two field goals and Wes Welker had a 44-yard punt return.
“The main focus was to really play a complementary game,” Moss said, “special teams, offense and defense. And I think we did that tonight.
“When we put all three of those things together, this team is very, very scary.”
Led by Sammy Morris’ 138 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, the New England running game amassed 257 yards - more than 100 better than its previous season best.
The Patriots compiled those numbers without Laurence Maroney, and will need to do so for the rest of the season. The former first-round draft pick, who entered 2008 as the starter but gained only 93 yards in three games, was placed on injured reserve Monday with a shoulder injury. Morris, his replacement, did not play in the second half due to a knee injury and is listed as doubtful for this game along with fellow running back LaMont Jordan.
Undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis relieved Morris and ran for 65 yards and a score on the first 13 carries of his career. Other backs on New England’s roster include third-down specialist Kevin Faulk and fullback Heath Evans.
The Patriots also suffered a major loss in their secondary, as 15-year veteran safety Rodney Harrison sustained a torn thigh muscle that will likely end his career. He was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.
Without him, second-year player Brandon Meriweather will likely move into a starting role. Meriweather, the 24th pick in the 2007 draft, had his third career interception in Monday’s win.
Pass protection continues to be a problem for New England. Though Cassel enjoyed his finest performance to date Monday, he was sacked six times to bring his season total to 25. He and San Francisco’s J.T. O’Sullivan are the only quarterbacks in the league who have been dropped 20 times or more.
The Rams (2-4) looked like a historically bad team under coach Scott Linehan in the season’s first four weeks, losing all of their games by 17 points or more. Since replacing Linehan with Haslett during the bye week, though, St. Louis has pulled off a pair of shocking upsets of NFC East contenders.
After eking out a 19-17 win at Washington on Oct. 12, the Rams dominated Dallas in a 34-14 victory last Sunday.
“I think it’s just the will of the players, more than anything,” Haslett said after beating the Cowboys. “I thought they played extremely well today, in all three phases.”
Steven Jackson ran for a season-high 160 yards and three touchdowns - tripling his scoring output from the first five games - before leaving in the fourth quarter against Dallas with a strained right thigh muscle.
Jackson’s availability for Sunday will be a game-time decision, Haslett said Friday.
“He had some limited reps today,” Haslett said. “He doesn’t need a lot of reps because he knows everything. I’ll be honest with you, I think it’ll be 50-50 (if he plays).”
Marc Bulger, whom Linehan benched in favor of Trent Green after Week 3 but has regained his starting job under Haslett, went 14-for-19 for 173 yards and a touchdown against Dallas. The St. Louis defense forced four turnovers, and has seven in the last two weeks after totaling two in the four games under Linehan.
These teams have split 10 meetings, including New England’s 20-17 Super Bowl win on Feb. 3, 2002. The Patriots also won the most recent matchup, 40-22 at St. Louis on Nov. 7, 2004.
This is the first visit to Gillette Stadium for the Rams, who were 3-1 in the old Foxboro Stadium.