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NFL Upset Special: Rams could Pants Pats

Los Angeles Rams at New England Patriots (-13, 44 o/u)

It’s Week 13. An idle head coach getting roasted by the media on a national level leads his team into Foxborough. Waiting for them is a Patriots team playing some truly uninspiring football and missing Rob Gronkowski. Still, the visiting team faces a giant spread usually reserved for college football. I know it feels like I’m setting this stage for this weekend’s Los Angeles (4-7 SU, 4-5-2 ATS) at New England game (9-2, 8-3 ATS); but actually I’m recapping last year’s Eagles-Patriots game.

These eerily similar circumstances have me pondering a very juicy prospect for gamblers: could the Patriots get upset at home once again?

New England is 9-2 and in its usual spot at the top of the AFC, but there are more clouds over Massachusetts than a typical December would bring. Gronk is done for the season, a huge blow to an offense that needs to carry this team, given the Pats’ defensive deficiencies.

The hole on this roster – so gaping it can be seen from space – is at pass rusher. The Patriots were second in the NFL in sacks last season, but have fallen drastically. This year, Football Outsiders has them ranked 30th in the league in adjusted sack rate. When rushing just four, New England can’t consistently make opposing QBs uncomfortable.

Last week against the lowly Jets, a heroic effort late from Rams cast-off Chris Long helped the Pats seal a 22-17 win. However, his strip-sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick marked just the second time Long has gotten to the QB all season. In fact, the team leader heading into December is second-year end Trey Flowers, with a mere four sacks.

The game against the Jets shouldn’t have been close, but New England’s offense never really got into a rhythm. With Tom Brady forced to move around on a hurt knee, and the Pats not really sticking to the run game, the team faced a ton of third-and-long situations, converting just 4 of 14 on the day. Tight end Martellus Bennett was also fighting through an ankle injury in that game, which meant rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell had a bigger role in the offense for a second straight week.

New England may be looking susceptible this week, but they are still coached by Bill Belichick. And if upsets were easy to pinpoint, they’d be called delights.

Los Angeles comes spiraling into town, losers of six of seven. After weeks of the offense being the problem, the Rams usually stout defense allowed 49 points in a road loss to the Saints. Throw in the fact that Belichick has beaten Jeff Fisher by a combined score of 102-7 in their last two meetings, and popular opinion is that the Pats will rout, no matter whom Brady is throwing too.

Except that may not be the case this week. The Rams boast one of the best defensive lines in football, particularly at stuffing the run. They had some trouble getting after Drew Brees last week, but the Saints also boast the second-best offensive line in football. New England’s blockers are a middle of the pack bunch, meaning Brady should be forced to move around the pocket again on that bum knee.

Still, even if the Pats’ offense has another off day, there is so much confidence in New England running away with the game because the Rams’ offense has been so dismal this year. Dead-last in points per game and led by a rookie making just his third start, the prevailing opinion is that even a weak D like the Patriots should have a field day.

But if there’s one lesson this NFL season has reinforced, it’s that rookies can surprise you. Jared Goff looked alright last week against the Saints, tossing three first-half touchdowns. More importantly, Todd Gurley has found a little running room with Goff under center, averaging 3.8 yards per carry (still not good, but much better than his season average).

Goff is still an unknown commodity, which can be tougher to gameplan for. And it’s not like Patriots coordinator Matt Patricia has been having a banner year to begin with. If he can’t find a way to pressure the rookie, there’s no reason the first overall pick can’t have a productive day through the air.

But if you’re still worried about scoring, don’t forget the third phase of the game: special teams. Los Angeles ranks third in special teams DVOA. The biggest reason the Eagles were able to pull off their upset over New England last year was the boost they received from the return game. Tavon Austin can be a true game-breaker for L.A. as a punt returner, notching a return TD in each of his first three seasons with the Rams. Austin has yet to take one back to the house this season; is he due?

You might be thinking, “this is all just grasping for straws.” Any recipe for an upset that involves Tom Brady playing poorly, Jared Goff playing well, and Jeff Fisher beating Bill Belichick is clearly a stupid one. But keep in mind, under Fisher, the Rams have won outright in six games in which they were underdogs of nine or more points.

Los Angeles has been reduced to a laughing stock this week (thanks in part to Fisher forgetting Patriots players names), and now they’re at a crossroads. They can lay down and die; or they can fight for respect. They might still fall short, but going off at a ridiculous +550 on the moneyline, this is a flier I can’t resist taking.

After all, who doesn’t like cheering against the Patriots?

Pick: Rams (+550).

Photo Credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/]

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