The Lions took on the Patriots under tremendous pressure. Never before had so many teams challenged Detroit for the title of “Crappiest Team in the NFL.” Carolina, Cincinatti, Buffalo, all of them seem to want the right to say THEY are the NFL’s whipping boy, the dog at the end of Michael Vick’s rape stand. But this was Thanksgiving Day, damnit! The Lions always lose on Thanksgiving Day! And they’d be damned if they were gonna let some upstart punks take that away from them. So the Patriots won… convincingly. How convincingly? That’s for my semi-arbitrary rating system to determine!
Quarterback: A+. Tom Brady posted a perfect quarterback rating, completing 77.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 341 and four touchdowns. In the second half, he missed twice. How does he not get perfect marks? Brady took some hits in the first half from a Lions defense led by the unpronounceable Ndamukong Suh, who is a rookie, so he hasn’t learned that the Lions are awful and nobody plays hard because nobody lives in Detroit or cares how they do. But once Bill Belichick figured out how to beat the pressure, Detroit’s defense got to witness the full power of the Patriots’ fully armed (but not necessarily footed) and operational passing game.
Running Back: A. I couldn’t rank them as high as Brady, but the running backs definitely handled their business Thursday. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead combined for 91 yards on the ground, plus 28 receiving yards between Woodhead and Sammy Morris. All that, and Green-Ellis scored two touchdowns. The running game did enough to sell the Lions on play-action passes, so that alone would merit at least a B. But Green-Ellis’ first touchdown, in which he straight-up ran over Alphonse Smith (who I think would get a an F if I was grading the Lions), cleared out New England’s cobwebs. After that score, even though the Lions led by a touchdown at halftime, everyone- including the analysts- figured the Patriots would come back and win the game.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: A+. Tremendous play from the wide receivers. Twice Deion Branch (three receptions, 113 yards) schooled Smith for touchdowns. The first time, Branch slipped behind him for an easy reception, then made two terrific jukes mid-sprint to turn Smith completely around. By the time Smith caught up to Branch, he was so unbalanced all he could do was give him a light shove. The second time, Branch made two quick moves at the line, cut inside Smith, and caught the ball for an easy score. Wes Welker, meanwhile, caught eight passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns, both times barreling through tacklers. While the tight ends did not score, they caught all seven passes thrown to them, all averaging more than ten yards per reception. Sometimes receivers made great moves, other times they ran great routes. But either way, they played great.
Offensive Line: A-. Another game, another sack. This team has shown it can protect Brady for 60 minutes, now they just have to learn how to do it every time. It might be unfair to judge them so strictly, but the guards get paid a lot, mainly for their ability to protect the quarterback. So if they can’t do their job, why are they here? Anyway, a sack and two 10-yard penalties hurt the line, but only a little. The sack came on New England’s first offensive possession of the game, so they can be forgiven for the same slow start that the rest of the Patriots had. Plus, they sprang the running backs for 91 combined yards. The line also kept their cool when the Lions, depressed because they briefly felt they could actually win a game for once, started getting chippy. The late hits started flying, but no Patriot responded. No one was ejected, no one will face suspension, but no one was hurt either. The Patriots line acted like professionals, not like teenagers, and that’s to be commended.
Defensive Line: B. No sacks. No quarterback hits. 129 allowed rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. Not the best game from the defensive line, who were completely contained by the Lions offensive line. But the Lions running and passing success didn’t really hurt the team, and the Lions were held scoreless for the last 22 minutes of the game. So give the line credit as part of a terrific second-half defense. Still, the line shouldn’t be proud of how they performed.
Linebackers: B+. Two sacks (Pierre Woods, Gary Guyton) is terrific, but the linebackers had some problems containing the running backs. Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew also had a pretty solid day, catching five balls for 67 yards, mostly over the middle. The linebackers seemed to have a hard time covering plays in the middle of the field, either on the ground or through the air. They were more integral to the victory than the defensive line, but only just. Allowing the Lions to score on three of their first five drives is unacceptable, and it was really a victory for the coaches that the Patriots were able to turn things around on both sides in the second half.
Defensive Backs: A-. Part of this grade is scaled, since the pass defense has been atrocious at points during the season. The Lions had 277 receiving yards. That’s the fourth-lowest of any opposing team this season, though oddly enough the Patriots were 1-2 before this game when they allowed fewer than 300 receiving yards (and their victory was against Buffalo, which was a pretty ugly victory). The Patriots also knocked down 11 passes, and Devin McCourty continued to improve, picking off Shaun Hill twice. McCourty returned those two picks for 73 yards, and New England scored touchdowns on both ensuing possessions. The first tied the game 17-17 and swung momentum in the Patriots’ favor, and the second put the icing on the cake, with Patriots now up 45-24 with 3:14 left in the game. The Patriots defense held Hill to just 58.7 percent accuracy, when they were allowing an average opponent accuracy of 69 percent coming into the game. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty darned good for this Patriots secondary. And if the offense can continue to click like it did Thursday, the defense looks like it can make just enough plays to hold leads.
Special Teams: A. This grade is also partially scaled. Shayne Graham is not Stephen Gostkowski. We’re not gonna see four or more kickoffs per game flying out the back of the end zone for touchbacks. But Graham can get the job done. He nailed all six point-after attempts and converted the one field-goal attempt. On kick offs, his kicks usually wound up inside the 5-yard line, which is serviceable. I’m a little unhappy with the Lions averaging over 27 yards per return, but it didn’t really hurt the team. And on a fourth-quarter kickoff, when Detroit had committed two dead-ball fouls, placing the ball at their 40-yard line, Graham kicked the ball through the goal posts. It was good practice for a deep field-goal situation, and it was kind of a “screw you” statement to the Lions, after they had started getting mean. Zoltan Mesko, meanwhile, averaged 51 yards on his three punts. Mesko now has the seventh best punt-return average in the NFL (6.5 yards per punt-return).
Coaching: A. Yes, the Patriots got kind of manhandled in the first half. They did not know how to account for Detroit’s pass rush, and Brady was getting beat up. But all that time, Belichick was watching and learning. At halftime, he came up with a strategy to kill the Lions’ rush, and it worked perfectly. Brady was rarely touched and never sacked in the second half, and the wide receivers and tight ends found ways to get open for four touchdowns. The Lions had no chance in the second half, and much of that can be attributed to the strong game plan devised at halftime by the coaches. The Patriots consistently outwitted the Lions, and the Lions started to get frustrated. You could tell Detroit was getting angry because they started committing penalties and going for late hits. But Belichick showed some leadership skills late in the game, convincing his players to calm down and not retaliate. Good planning, good leading, good grades.
All right, that does it for this week. The next Patriots game is Monday, December 6, versus the New York Jets. Whoever wins that will likely win the AFC East and finish the season with the best record in the conference. Both teams will have had 11 days between games, so both teams should come out raring to go. Hopefully, the Patriots will have figured out from their Week Two defeat how to beat Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez.