As we approach midseason, the games grow more and more important.
That simple fact is emphasized even greater by the level playing field across the NFL, with 17 teams holding claim to a 3-3, 3-4 or 4-3 record at this point in the season.
The importance of this game can't be overstated for either team, so let's take a look at the key matchups that could play a hand in determining the outcome.
Catching Up With the Patriots
New England has been mired in mediocrity all season, and they have already found themselves at or below .500 four out of the seven weeks of the season. The Patriots have a chance to put themselves ahead of that mark by two games and have a chance to put together their second winning streak of the season.
If you hadn't seen this team since 2011, you'd have a hard time telling it was a different team at all.
The offense ranks first in the league in yards and points, but those statistics are misleading. There have been long stretches where the offense has had a hard time moving the ball, specifically in key moments.
Once again, their pass defense is in shambles and was most recently decimated by Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. The embattled Jets quarterback completed 68.3 percent of his passes against the Patriots and had six passes of 20 yards or more. That upped New England's total to 39 on the season. Their defensive passer rating is 99.2 and ranks sixth-worst in the NFL.
Catching Up With the Rams
Their pass defense started off incredibly well and ranked among the top five in defensive passer rating up until the past couple of weeks, during which time quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Aaron Rodgers have gashed the secondary, completing 51 of 66 passes (77.28 percent) for 527 and five touchdowns with no interceptions.
Quarterback Sam Bradford (59.8 percent completions, 7.3 YPA, 7 TD, 6 INT, 81.5 passer rating) is returning to the serviceable form of his rookie season despite what's been a well-below-standard performance for running back Steven Jackson (3.8 YPA, 1 TD).
Key Matchup to Watch: Brandon Gibson vs. Alfonzo Dennard
The Patriots shouldn't have much difficulty stopping the Rams on the ground, so the key matchups will come in the passing game.
With Devin McCourty lined up at safety, rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard started at McCourty's usual spot at left cornerback. Dennard played well in his first two games, but despite intercepting a poorly thrown pass from Mark Sanchez, Dennard struggled against the Jets in allowing completions on five of six passes in his direction.
Danny Amendola leads the Rams with 32 receptions, but he is usually lined up in the slot. Brandon Gibson has primarily lined up as an outside receiver. As was the case last week with Jets receivers Jeremy Kerley and Stephen Hill, Dennard will probably draw the outside receiver.
Here is a sampling of some of the plays in Dennard's direction last week.
Here's a separate sampling of some plays made by Gibson.
Dennard should be watching for misdirection routes, as we see him get exposed on a curl route in his video while Gibson has a couple of nice catches of his own on similar routes. If the Patriots secondary is playing off in coverage, that could only make it easier for Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to complete those passes with a big cushion between the receiver and the defender.
Biggest Advantage for the Patriots
The Rams have been exposed in the passing game over the past two weeks, and while the Patriots offense has been up and down, that doesn't change the fact that they still have the tools to get it done through the air.
They give up completions at a 66.3-percent clip, while Tom Brady is completing 65.3 percent of his passes. If the Rams are having a hard time disrupting the passing game, the Patriots offense could carve them up with ease.
Combine that with a Rams defense that has allowed opponents to convert 43.48 percent of their third downs over the past three games (per TeamRankings.com) and a Patriots offense that ranks third this season on third downs with a 47.62 conversion percentage, and it could be a long day for the Rams defense.
Biggest Advantage for the Rams
One of the biggest advantages the Rams have is that they don't have a running game. As backwards as that sounds, they wouldn't have much of a running game to rely on against New England's third-ranked run defense.
The Rams have only hit on 17 pass plays of 20 yards or more, but that hasn't stopped the likes of Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez from picking up six such plays each against the Patriots. Brandon Gibson has three such plays, and wide receiver Chris Givens has four receptions of 40 yards or more.
The Rams receivers may not be elite at getting downfield, but they certainly have the ability to, and that alone is enough to give the Patriots secondary fits.
Best Video Tangentially Related to the Game
What's the first thing that comes up in a YouTube search for "Patriots Rams"?
Take a wild guess.
Patriots Win If...
They can run the football.
It's an easy trend to spot. When the Patriots pick up more than 100 yards on the ground, they are 4-0. When they do not, they are 0-3.
It's not just about the yards, though, it's about how effective they are running the ball. In each of New England's wins, they ran the ball for over 4.22 YPA. In each of their losses, though, they averaged less than 3.35 YPA.
Establishing the running game was never believed to be important in New England, but there is strong evidence to the contrary in 2012. Thus far, it's been practically essential to their ability to win games.
Rams Win If...
St. Louis' run defense is among the better units the Patriots have seen thus far this year. Teams that have effectively shut down the run against New England have had success in picking up a win against the Patriots.
The Rams cornerbacks are the type of unit that can give the Patriots receivers a hard time. If the Rams can shut down the run with their front seven or six, which will allow them to maintain the numbers advantage in coverage, they severely increase their chances of winning.
Their pass defense must return to the form it saw earlier this season, before having its door blown off these past two weeks.
Despite their inability to stop the pass, the Patriots' ability to shut down the run gives them a distinct advantage in every game they play simply because they win the quarterback matchup nine times out of 10.
The Rams have the right personnel to give the Patriots a difficult matchup, but with so many weapons in the passing game, it's hard to imagine Brady not being able to find any good matchups to take advantage of.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said that close wins are to be expected in a tough league where every team is good. There will be more of those where that came from, and this could be another one of those games.
Patriots 30, Rams 24
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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