Patriots put forth complete effort in 45-7 rout of Rams


Patriots put forth complete effort in 45-7 rout of Rams

There may be better ways to head into a bye week . . . but, boy, it's hard to think of any.

The Patriots offense hummed along as usual, or maybe even a little better; Tom Brady directed scoring drives (five straight touchdowns, and then a field goal) on each of the Pats' first six possessions. But you've come to expect that, or at least something like it.

Here's what you didn't expect: The Patriots defense, after surrendering its obligatory 50-yard touchdown pass on the game's first drive, clamped down on St. Louis in its best effort since Opening Day at Tennessee. New England held the explosive Steven Jackson to a mere 23 yards rushing, took away the deep ball (the touchdown notwithstanding), and -- straight from the who'da-thunk-it? department -- held the Rams to 4-of-13 on third- and fourth-down opportunities.

The resulting 45-7 victory on a rainy evening at Wembley Stadium in London -- so one-sided that Ryan Mallett even got fourth-quarter playing time in relief of Brady, his first-ever NFL action -- sends the Pats into the bye week at 5-3, the same record they had after eight games last year. The 2011 Patriots, of course, wouldn't lose again until the Super Bowl. And the notion that the 2012 version can run off 10 (or 11) straight wins, unthinkable prior to today, may still be unlikely but . . . well, maybe just not so unthinkable anymore.

"It feels good to finally put one game together as a team," said Vince Wilfork. "Doing a lot of things correctly, just playing good football all the way around . . . Guys can see that when we play together, and don't hurt ourselves, we can be a dangerous football team."

Brady directed the Pats to 474 total yards, their record-breaking 17th straight game of 350 or more yards. It was highlighted by touchdown drives of 78, 83, 78, 56, 80 and 55 yards, not to mention:

A pair of touchdown passes from Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski, who a) caught 8 balls overall for 146 yards and b) came up with a pair of highlight-reel spikes after his two scores, one of which was an uncanny imitation of the Queen's guards.

A 127-yard rushing effort from Stevan Ridley, including a career-long 41-yard run.

Two TD receptions by Brandon Lloyd, on his only two catches of the day.

On the defensive side, the Pats got sacks from Chandler Jones and -- who else? -- Rob Ninkovich, and interceptions from Alonzo Dennard and Tavon Wilson. Ninkovich even had another fumble recovery, but it was wiped out by a penalty.

"We had a real good day today," acknowledged coach Bill Belichick.

That they did.

Hightower on Collins: 'He makes it a lot easier for me'


Hightower on Collins: 'He makes it a lot easier for me'

FOXBORO -- Dont'a Hightower is coming off of one of the best games of his career, and he did it while running the Patriots defensive huddle without the help of his on-the-field partner at the linebacker level.

"It’s a lot more fluent having Jamie [Collins] out there," Hightower said on Wednesday. "A lot of the times we coordinate things a lot together. I usually take care of the front, he takes care of the secondary. We have our own way of doing things. Sometimes Jamie is just like, ‘No, you go ahead and you just make the calls and I’ll play off of you.’

"It helps having him out there. I mean, he does everything so he makes it a lot easier for me. Anytime I can have him out there with me, I’m 100 percent having him out there."

Hightower has plenty of experience playing without Collins, however, and Collins is accustomed to having to go without Hightower. Both had issues staying on the field in 2015, and although it's early, that trend has continued this season.

Hightower missed Weeks 2 and 3 due to a knee injury, and Collins missed Week 6 with a hip issue, meaning the duo has been available to coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia only three times this year. 

Last season the pair was active for 10 of 18 games, including both playoff games, and during a Week 5 win over the Cowboys, Hightower played just nine snaps. Collins dealt with an illness that kept him out for four games last season, and Hightower, as has been the case for much of his career, was limited by (and often played through) myriad ailments.

Both are vital to the long-term success of the Patriots defense in 2016, but it's been hit-or-miss as to when they'll be out there to play off of one another as Hightower described.

"Our linebackers, Jamie, Dont'a, they're two of the best in the league," said safety Duron Harmon following Hightower's dominating performance against the Bengals in Week 6. "Any time we can have those guys out there, they just continue to create havoc.

"They make plays, they make it easier for us, especially me. The quarterback can't look off as long when Dont'a's all in his face -- him and Jamie. Having him on the field is a plus. And when you get both of them on the field it's a double-plus."

And therein lies the issue: Having both Hightower and Collins out there together has felt like a luxury rather than the norm. 

At some point, the Patriots will have to make decisions as to what they'll do at the linebacker level for the foreseeable future. Both Hightower and Collins are slated to hit free-agency, and their durability will certainly factor into the equation when the Patriots make them offers to stick in New England.

Until then, though, both will work to be available as often as possible -- both for their team's sake and their own as they eye new deals -- where they can stress opposing offenses at a degree to which most linebacker combinations around the league can only aspire. 

"With us out there we’re able to do a lot of different things, [we have] a lot of versatility," Hightower said. "So hopefully we can both stay out there."

Hightower was removed from the Patriots injury report last week, meaning he's able to take on a full workload in practice. Collins, meanwhile, continues to be limited in practice, and his availability for Sunday's game with the Steelers is not yet known. In place of Collins, sixth-round rookie Elandon Roberts earned the bulk of the playing time against the Bengals last week. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo saw a season-high eight defensive snaps in the win.