The NFL wants loyal football fans in London. The league sees another market, and whether there is a team there or not, the NFL believes they have a fertile overseas market. The St. Louis Rams and the New England Patriots are there this Sunday to help expand the league's beachhead in the UK, playing what has become an annual regular season pro football -- American football -- game at Wembley Stadium.
Billed as a Super Bowl XXXVI rematch, both these teams have changed dramatically since then. The Rams entered a long, dark period after losing that championship, plagued by mismanagement and poor drafting. Ownership changed and the new guy, Stan Kroenke, hired Jeff Fisher to breathe new life into the team. New England is still a perennial contender, still riding Tom Brady to the postseason, but the team that was so dominant over the last decade is just good enough these days.
Meet the Rams
This is technically a home game for the Rams. The team jumped into a three-year deal to be the home team at Wembley Stadium before the city took exception to the clear lease violation, which shortened the deal to this year only while the Rams try to coax an upgraded Dome out of the city.
Quarterback Sam Bradford, the first pick in the 2010 draft and the last of the ridiculously wealthy rookies, was supposed to be the building block for a brighter future. After dinking and dunking his way to a Rookie of the Year Award, the Rams and their dwindling fans are still waiting for him to live up to lofty scouting reports. Bradford has 1,592 passing yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He has just three touchdowns in his last five games, and the Rams are scoring just 18.6 points per game. Aging running back Steven Jackson is sharing carries with rookie Daryl Richardson.
St. Louis is 3-4 largely because of a stout defense. Opponents are averaging just 225 passing yards per game against the Rams and have scored just seven receiving touchdowns through seven games. Free agent addition Cortland Finnegan has three interceptions - two off his single season best of five - while injecting some much-needed attitude to the unit. Second-year defensive end Robert Quinn has seven sacks, tied for the third-most in the NFL. Chris Long has four sacks and dozens of quarterback pressures. It's the kind of unit that could make problems for Brady et al, as long as they can play mistake free.
Meet the Patriots
New England is 4-3, and has to string together more than a pair of consecutive wins this season. The offense has done its part, leading the league with an average of 31 points per game and 436 yards per game. Brady is averaging 300 yards per game this season. He has 12 touchdowns and three interceptions, which is slightly under expectations for a team that added free agent Brandon Lloyd, who the Rams rented last season, to go with Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski. Belichick's team runs the ball more this year, leading the league with 248 rushing attempts. Stevan Ridley leads a pack of running backs with 135 attempts, 589 yards and four touchdowns.
The Patriots defense picked up where it left off last year, allowing oodles and oodles of passing yards to any opponent they face. Russell Wilson threw three touchdowns against them two weeks ago, and Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback, at times, last week. New England ranks 29th for passing yards allowed, with an average of 290 per game, as well as 16 passing touchdowns, no team has allowed more. One bright spot has been rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, who leads all rookies with five sacks.
Local Takes: Rams
Turf Show Times says this one's all about Rams quarterback Sam Bradford:
I, and we, need Sam Bradford to step up and become Crystal hot sauce. He's the central, most important player on this team. We need to know that every time we see him, we know he'll be exactly what we need. Sure, he may not always match up perfectly with what he's paired with. But we need to know that he's our go-to. Because if he's not our Crystal, we need to start looking for one.
Local Takes: Patriots
Play well and get into the bye week is the key for New England, says Pats Pulpit:
As long as the Pats stick to what they do best on offense, they should be fine. The defense is another story altogether. But if it can get to Bradford and make him uneasy in the pocket, that should make life easier for the wretched secondary. There's a bye next week and the banged up Pats need it badly. Going into that week off on a winning note will make the recovery time that much sweeter.
Follow the Fun
Head over to SB Nation's team blogs that do a fine job covering both these teams upside down, left, right and every direction in between: Turf Show Times for the Rams and Pats Pulpit for the Patriots.
@Miklasz - Sports columnist extraordinaire for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
@GregABedard - Self-described "wet blanket of reason" for the Boston Globe.
Put another shrimp on the barbie! Wait ... this game is actually in London. The NFL really, really wants to establish a market across the pond, which makes it odd that the league insists on giving UK fans teams like the Rams and Jaguars. Tom Brady and the Patriots are favored by a touchdown in the eyes of most sports books, but the Rams are 5-2 against the spread thanks to a solid defense. The problem the Rams have is that it takes a Herculean effort to score 20 points. The Patriots don't have that problem.
The pick: 23-14, Patriots
The Rams are technically the "home" team, but the odds makers are treating it like a neutral site, giving the Patriots a touchdown edge, according to OddsShark.