A stat you tend to hear nowadays in the middle of most Rams games is that head coach Sean McVay is undefeated in the nearly three dozen games in which his team has gone into halftime with the lead. That impressive mark came up again as L.A. took a 17-3 advantage into the break on Thursday night against the Patriots. But, with New England’s 45-0 destruction of the Chargers still fresh on everybody’s mind, you’d be forgiven if the Belichick mystique made the 14-point deficit feel much smaller than it otherwise might have.
After 15 more minutes of football, however, not only were the Patriots looking absolutely worthless compared to their playoff-bound opponents, but their entire season seemed like it was done. The Rams shored up their lead by playing maybe the most flawless quarter I’ve ever seen, as they earned three sacks, forced two punts, and scored a touchdown on a 10-minute, 16-play drive to go up 24-3, which would stand as the final score.
The combination of New England mistakes—like a neutral zone infraction on fourth-and-1 in the red zone—and Rams dominance—Cam Akers ran it 29 times for 171 yards, with 63 of them coming on that 90-yard clock-eating drive—was enough to perhaps mark the unofficial end of a dynasty. ESPN now gives the 6-7 Pats a mere six percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs, which makes them the worst team still mathematically alive in the AFC, by a wide margin, and would stop an 11-year postseason streak if it holds. It would take not only a perfect final stretch for the 10th-place Patriots to earn more football, but also critical losses by the Dolphins, Colts, Raiders, and Ravens.
This was a statement win for the Pats’ old Super Bowl foes, who sit atop the toughest division in football and have proven that their offensive and defensive lines can just completely dominate a game. But the more interesting story out of this lopsided contest is: Where does New England go from here? With Cam Newton a free agent after this season, the calls are growing louder for him to be permanently sidelined in favor of unproven backup Jarrett Stidham. Newton has been unremarkable under center in his time up north, making an impact primarily by running as he’s thrown twice as many interceptions as his five touchdown passes. With just three games left in the season, it makes sense that the Patriots would give Stidham a few chances to show what he can do, so they can make a more informed decision about how to fill their starting job in the offseason. But Bill Belichick doesn’t quite seem ready to do that.
“Cam’s our quarterback,” Belichick clarified multiple times at the post-game press conference despite benching Newton in the fourth quarter, elaborating very little on that declaration as he pretty clearly tried to project a confidence that New England’s season wasn’t literally over just yet.
“Jarrett has worked hard. He’s tried to take advantage of his opportunities. But that’s not really the point,” he did say.
Football has been better and more interesting for all of the Patriots’ ongoing, frustrating success over the last two decades, but the collapse of this empire—both as Tom Brady struggles to succeed consistently in Tampa and his legendary former coach fails to carry on the franchise’s tradition of winning—is perhaps just as fascinating. The Patriots are now a vehicle through which a bold contender like the Rams can make themselves appear powerful on national television, but as a winner in his own right Belichick is essentially back to square one, a place he hasn’t been since Mo Lewis nearly ended Drew Bledsoe’s life. There are no easy answers here, no escalator that the Patriots can take to quickly regain the same status they had in 2016. But seeing them try to find a way back will either be a masterclass in reloading a team, or the best schadenfreude that the NFL has to offer.