Despite an early setback, the New England Patriots once again left Wembley Stadium as handsome victors in an International Series match. Three years ago Tampa Bay's Buccaneers were put to the sword, but even that performance was eclipsed by this near faultless display against a St Louis Rams squad that was game and determined, but simply didn't have the quality to force Tom Brady's men on to the back foot.
As in the five previous years of this annual celebration, Wembley was brimful of NFL fans sporting the colours of all 32 clubs and barely had the sound of anthem singing died away when Rams quarterback Sam Bradford stepped back with plenty of time and flung the ball downfield to a chorus of gasps which erupted into cheers as Chris Givens wrong footed Patriots defenders to collect a 50 yard pass and dive into the end zone. New England have looked far from invincible so far this season and as Greg Zuerlein popped over the extra point the stadium reverberated with anticipation of a possible upset.
Initially the Rams defense looked as confident as their offense, and a Patriots team that had only had six three and outs all season were fortunate to escape when a Bradley Fletcher pass interference call on 3rd and 2 gave them vital momentum. They never looked back. Moments later Brandon Lloyd, who'd been a success here with the Denver Broncos two years ago, collected a graceful Brady throw in yards of space in the end zone and the scores were level.
Brady had now moved into third place in NFL history with a streak of 40 straight games with at least one touchdown pass and the onus was now on Bradford to start trading blows. Initially he had some success, but he couldn't get beyond halfway and by the end of the first quarter Brady and his offense were encamped on the Rams goal-line. The Patriots are famous for their interchangeable running backs and when neither current leader Steven Ridley nor veteran Danny Woodhead could get the required inches, Shane Vereen finallly punched it in on a bold fourth down play.
After another Rams drive stalled early Vereen continued to harass the Rams line while tight end catching machine Rob Gronkowski began sauntering into space just over the middle and gashing big yardage after the catch. When Brady zipped him the ball for the next score despite double coverage "The Gronk", who on Saturday in Trafalgar Square responded dramatically to the crowd's exhortations to "spike the mic!", celebrated this time with his own version of the changing of the guard before spearing the ball into the turf.
The Patriots were now fully in stride but Rams star Steven Jackson couldn't get anything going on the ground and their defense and passing game were constantly undermined by a roll-call of exotic infractions. Bradford couldn't avoid an intentional grounding call as he fled from the shotgun, a completion to Austin Pettis was reversed thanks to an illegal touch somewhere along the line and even a punt was nullified not only for plain old holding but also for what we swear sounded like "the kicker running out of bounds", which was a new one on us. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher was called so many time for pass interference it moved Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders to tweet that there were now officially more Fletch DPIs than Fletch movies.
With a pressing need to raise a subdued crowd Bradford survived a tough hit to lead his team to a 53 yard field goal attempt at the two minute warning. Patriots cornerback Marquis Cole was lined up, hoping to make a block:
Their kicker has a tremendous leg and they could have got easy points out of that, but when I was coming off the edge I saw the holder bobble it so I just kept going and made the play.
Zuerlein had indeed been making such monster conversions look easy all year, but instead of a fooothold back in the game the fake field goal mishap led to former Rams tight end Michael Hoomanawanui performing once again the vital if unsung task of clearing the way for a running back score (this time by Ridley) and with the Patriots now up 28-7 at the half the game looked all but over.
Hoomanawanui began the second period with his own moment in the sun and the honour of the opening catch, only his second of the season, for a gain of 18 yards: "Whether it's catching one ball or blocking fifty plays, whatever's going to get us the 'W', that's all we care about." One hundred and fifty seconds later Brady found Lloyd again to equal the 38-7 margin the Patriots had heaped onto the Bucs.
The Rams were still trying to get something going and converted a feisty fourth and one before roars of dismay met his narrow failure to repeat the opening deep ball trick. Moments later Chandler Jones tapped his ankle for a 17 yard sack and the game felt gone with more than a quarter left.
Gronkowski finally pushed the score into Wembley record territory with another TD catch just inside the fourth quarter and it turned out to be the signal for about 10% of the fans to leave. By the final whistle about 30% had headed for the exits. By soccer standards, this would be unremarkable, but this game is a special, annual day out for the ticket holders and to leave significantly early is not what they would have planned.
It's fantastic that Wembley will have two games to celebrate next year, but there has to be some concern about the crowd's reaction if the first in particular is a blowout. It might hinder sales for the second game only a month later and would also provide a test of how London's fans might react to the early struggles of any new franchise that might be based here. Two games actually represents a quarter of a full season of home fixtures. There's no doubt legions of fans here love this game and the international series enjoys huge, loyal support. The question now is can the annual festival goers be persuaded to become a united London tribe?