The New England Patriots and St Louis Rams take their talents across the pond this Sunday to showcase the annual NFL International Series. The Patriots are favored by a touchdown in Las Vegas, and they'll be a popular favorite among the London fans as well. Let's take a closer look to see why I like them to cover this spread and come out on top.
The look-ahead line had the Patriots favored by 8.5 points, but after Week 7 they re-opened as -6.5 favorites. It didn't take very long for early money to recognize the value, as it quickly got bet to -7 (odds from SBRforum). The public is also getting in on the action with 77% of bets coming in on the favorite.
Home vs Road?
The Rams are technically listed as the home team here, but in reality this is more of a road game for them. The New England Patriots are much more of a world-wide brand than the St Louis Rams. The funny thing is, Gisele Bunchen might have as much to do with that as the Patriots' history in the Super Bowl. Tom Brady is a house-hold name, even across seas.
This isn't the best news for the Rams. The home-road dichotomy is real with this club as all three of their wins have come in the dome, while three of their four losses have come on the road.
Jeff Fisher has tried to mitigate some of this discrepancy by taking his team to London earlier in the week. He hopes that the added time there would increase the acclimation process, but I'm not so sure this is going to work. Keep in mind that the Rams have one of the youngest starting rosters in the NFL.
In contrast, the Patriots have one of the most experienced starting crews, and the organization has made this trip before. Bill Belichick made a good point that every team and trip is different, but he also conceded that their previous trip to London does provide certain shortcuts and advantages. They traveled to London later in the week, which is the same script they had when they killed the Bucs in 2009.
The reason all of this is so important is because we must factor in "home-field advantage", or lack thereof, into this point spread. At best, the Rams receive zero points on the line due to the aforementioned factors, but in reality we could probably grant the Patriots an extra point or two.
Rams = Seahawks-Lite?
Side-by-side, there isn't a whole lot that separates the St Louis Rams from the Seattle Seahawks. They both rely heavily on a strong running game and stout defense, while hoping for just enough out of the passing game to win a game.
The Patriots have seen this song and dance before and handled it just fine until a bizarre sequence in the final quarter.
The issue for the Rams is their defense isn't quite up to par with the Seahawks yet. They are good against the pass and the run, but not great. Furthermore, they are just average in the sack department, on third down, and in the red zone. This formula is great against most offenses, but it's not enough to slow down a lethal offense like the Patriots.
If the Rams fall behind, the running game becomes borderline irrelevant. Even so, the Patriots run defense ranks near the top of the NFL. Relying on Sam Bradford to win a game on his own is just asking too much - especially when you consider his favorite target, Danny Amendola, is doubtful to play.
Football Outsiders pointed out that the Patriots have given up the most passes beyond 20 yards this season (39), but the Rams offense is the third-worst with these passes (17). The inability of the Rams offense to take advantage is a big plus for New England.
Before Week 7, many stat-heads were labeling the New England Patritos the best 3-3 team in NFL history. That message was severely toned down after they allowed the New York Jets come from behind to almost win the game.
Unless we are talking about a severe injury situation, I'm not about to overreact to one game. No matter what the records say, the fact remains that New England is a bonafide contender and highly efficient team.
Is their pass defense bad? Yes. Is their third down/red zone defense below average? Yes.
Yet, they have improved upon last season. That might be hard to believe given what we've seen on Sundays, but the stats don't lie.
I'm also not convinced the Rams offense is equipped to cover the number even if they're down late in the game. The St Louis offense toils away near the bottom of the rankings in drive success rate, third down conversions, and red zone efficiency.
They are also badly outmatched in the average starting field position category, as well as special teams. Greg Zuerlein is a bright spot, but even he has fallen back to earth over recent weeks. It's also unlikely that the Rams will need field goals at the end of the game, so Zeurlein's big leg probably won't matter.
Combined, this puts St Louis at a significant disadvantage in most situations, including garbage time.
This pick is definitely going against the grain. The Rams are 5-2 ATS this year, while the Pats have blown 4th quarter leads in back-to-back weeks. It is also a pick that goes against the strong trend of NFC underdogs and the fact that the NFC is much better across the board than the AFC.
Nevertheless, I have to call it like I see it and I don't think the Rams match-up well here, nor do I think it's a very good situation for them. After adjusting for the "home-field" disadvantage, the Patriots should be favored by more than a touchdown on Sunday. The look-ahead line had it right the first time.
NFL Pick: NE -7.