Adam Kaufman

Patriots Fans, It’s Okay for You to Take the Lions for Granted

Matthew Stafford.jpg

With the way the Patriots have played since their Misery in Missouri, the only question mark surrounding whether or not they could beat the one-dimensional Colts last weekend involved the location of the game.

No big road wins since 2011? No longer a storyline.

Next up, the Packers…err, Lions.

You’re going to get that a lot this week. In fact, it’s already started.

Calling Detroit a bad team would be both disrespectful and incorrect. At 7-3 and winners of four of five, Jim Caldwell’s Lions hold the NFC North lead (thanks to a tie-breaker) over their division foe from the land of frozen tundra.

A more accurate description would be inferior.

The vast majority of the Lions’ success can be attributed to their elite-level defense. They’ve allowed a league-low 15.6 points a game and held opponents to just 290.3 total yards and 68.8 rushing yards on average, both NFL-bests as well.

Detroit’s pass-defense? That ranks fifth with an average of 221.5 yards permitted, while the club is 10th with 26 sacks and has held opposing quarterbacks to an 80.2 rating (7th).

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s ability to alter his calls and coverage with rotating personnel has been astounding – particularly with cornerbacks Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson done for the season with injuries – and the explosive Ndamukong Suh is one of the premier defensive tackles in the game.

But they haven’t seen the Patriots.

Bill Belichick’s squad has won 13 straight against NFC North challengers, including Minnesota and Chicago this year. New England has claimed three in a row in the series, and hasn’t lost to Detroit since 2000. Its last defeat to the men from Motown in Foxborough came in 1993, when Tom Brady was 16 and still working up the courage to talk to women who looked like Gisele.

Now, nearly 14 years to the day after Brady made his NFL debut against the Lions in a 34-9 loss on Nov. 23, 2000, his high-octane, well-balanced offense will try to keep the locomotive moving on Sunday.

With last weekend’s 42-20 throttling of the Colts in Indianapolis, the Pats have won six consecutive games to shoot into first in the AFC at 8-2. Along the way, they’ve outscored their opponents 243-128, or by an average of 19.2 points.

Aided by a revitalized offensive line, a slew of capable receiving options and, most importantly, a healthy Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have reached at least 42 points in each of their last three victories over the Bears, Broncos, and Colts. As emphasized in Indy, New England even has a running attack now, too.

The Pats aren’t playing well on offense right now; they’re playing like it’s 2007. Even if the Lions slow them down, to what degree will they really make a difference against a team that sits second in the league with 32.3 points a game after averaging 20 for the season’s opening month?

Suppose Detroit stifles new fan-favorite Jonas Gray and the run-game? With the Lions’ dynamic front-four – a group that has only given up more than 80 yards on the ground once this year – that wouldn’t be a surprise. But, with Brady able to throw to Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Shane Vereen, and Tim Wright from behind a line that’s provided him with great protection in recent weeks, it also wouldn’t be the end of the world.

New England should easily still be able to score in the 20’s. From there, it’s up to the Patriots’ defense to finish the job.

In their last three wins, the Pats have entirely shut down or at the very least contained the likes of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey, Julius Thomas, Reggie Wayne, and T.Y. Hilton. Martellus Bennett, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders all put up their numbers in what was effectively garbage time.

They can handle the Lions and a mediocre offense that plays better on paper.

Led by QB Matthew Stafford, receivers Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, and running backs Joique Bell and Reggie Bush, the Lions have the 18th-best scoring offense in the league at 18.8 points. They average 332.3 yards (21st), 79.8 rushing yards (T-30th), 3.2 yards per carry (30th), and find the end zone in just 52 percent of their trips to the red area (21st). Oh, and their atrocious offensive line has contributed to 31 pig-piles on Stafford (27th).

The 26-year-old Stafford is a volume quarterback, with numbers bolstered by throwing to a 3-time All-Pro in Johnson. There’s a reason he is the fastest signal-caller in history to amass 20,000 career yards.

This year, Johnson has missed three games with a lingering ankle injury that’s limited him to 520 yards and three scores on 34 catches in seven outings, while Tate has stepped in to lead the team with 68 catches, 950 yards, and three TD’s of his own.

Stafford still manages to rank eighth with 2,679 passing yards, but his 61.2 completion percentage (22nd), 13 touchdowns (T-15th), nine interceptions (T-9th), and 85 QB rating (23rd) place him far from marquee status. Detroit’s running game – which has eclipsed 100 yards in just two of 10 games and totaled 798 yards – has done almost nothing to provide Stafford’s offense with any balance.

For comparison sake, remember when Gray ran for 201 yards last week? He also enjoyed more trips to the end zone in that game than any member of the Lions has produced all season.

And, even if the frequently-penalized Lions can move the chains against the Patriots’ increasingly-impressive secondary and defensive line, let’s not forget about their abysmal kicking game.

Detroit has used three kickers this season, from Boston College’s Nate Freese to Alex Henery to Matt Prater. Collectively, the trio has connected on just 13-of-24 field goal attempts for a far-and-away league-worst 54.2 percent success-rate. Beyond 40 yards, they are 5-for-16. For some perspective, the Pats’ Stephen Gostkowski is 11-for-11 from that range.

This matchup might command a little more respect had it been scheduled to take place at Ford Field. The Lions’ only road wins this season, however, have come at the expense of the Jets, Vikings, and Falcons (in London), who are a combined 10-20. The Patriots have won 14 straight at Gillette, and counting.

I don’t know about you, but I’m on to Green Bay.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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