FOXBOROUGH -- Safety Artrell Hawkins felt it from the moment he arrived at his Gillette Stadium parking space yesterday.
"Even pulling into the stadium, it seemed like the energy wasn't the same," he said.
Defensive tackle Richard Seymour felt like the team needed a jolt, adding that "there wasn't a lot of emotion all day long."
The lack of energy and emotion showed in the Patriots' uneven performance yesterday against the two-win Detroit Lions. There were 10 penalties, three turnovers, and several breakdowns in pass protection.
By the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, the Patriots faced an 8-point deficit and were in jeopardy of suffering their most embarrassing loss of the season. But the team came to life at just the right time, turning to a no-huddle offense to score two touchdowns -- both on runs by Corey Dillon -- while the defense came up with three turnovers in the final seven minutes. Linebacker Mike Vrabel had two fourth-quarter interceptions, while linebacker Rosevelt Colvin had a key strip sack, which was recovered by lineman Mike Wright to set up the winning score.
The end result was a 28-21 victory that produced similar responses from Patriots players as the week before, following their victory over the Bears: It's good to win, but the performance will need to improve if the team is to reach its ultimate goal. And time is running out.
"You see it and you are concerned, you don't want to see those mistakes," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi after the team improved its record to 9-3. "We have to fix it before we get to games that can end seasons. It's crunch time now, it's December, and we've got to work on fixing these things now."
One major subplot to the victory was the loss of rookie running back Laurence Maroney, who left in the first quarter shortly after a 3-yard rush. The dynamic Maroney, one of the team's top playmakers, didn't return after the team reported he had the wind knocked out of him.
The Patriots improved to 20-5 in December since Bill Belichick became coach in 2000, and are now 23-4 against NFC foes over the last six seasons. Yesterday capped a three-game sweep of NFC North teams, but the Patriots get back to AFC play next Sunday in Miami, a game that quarterback Tom Brady was already pointing to late yesterday.
"This game this week is going to be very telling for us," said Brady, who was 27 of 38 for 305 yards and one interception. "It is always tough to play down there and this is a huge game for us. I would love to see us come out and play much better."
The Patriots were off from the start yesterday.
"For us to be playing as flat as we did, it was unacceptable," said Colvin, who finished with two sacks to improve his season total to 6 1/2. "We have to make sure to wake up earlier and get going faster, because in playoff games you can't start off so flat."
The Patriots actually scored first, although it wasn't convincing, as a 17-play first-quarter drive ended with a 25-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal at 2:47. The Lions answered on their next possession, going mostly to the air on an 11-play, 85-yard drive that culminated with quarterback Jon Kitna hitting receiver Mike Furrey (9 catches, 123 yards) for a 5-yard score early in the second quarter.
The Lions then appeared primed to take a 14-3 lead on their next possession, driving to the Patriots' 4. But Hawkins forced a fumble on running back Kevin Jones, which was recovered by Vrabel at the 2. Yet five plays later, Patriots running back Patrick Pass lost a fumble, which the Lions turned into a 29-yard Jason Hanson field goal, taking a 10-3 lead with 3:19 left in the half.
That seemed to wake up the Patriots, who countered with their first touchdown as three big plays moved the ball from the Patriots' 27 to the Lions' 6. It started with a Troy Brown reverse for 16 yards, and was followed by Brady hitting receiver Jabar Gaffney on a crossing route for 28 yards, then tight end Benjamin Watson over the middle for 23. Running back Corey Dillon finished things off, scoring his first of three rushing touchdowns, powering in over the left side to tie the game at 10.
The Patriots picked up an additional 3 points before halftime, with cornerback Asante Samuel intercepting his team-high seventh pass with just less than a minute to play, ultimately setting up a 27-yard Gostkowski field goal that spotted the team a 13-10 halftime lead.
Yet the pesky Lions controlled the third quarter, holding the ball for 13 minutes and forcing two turnovers. Hanson hit a 38-yard field goal at 9:09 to tie the game at 13, then Brady was intercepted by cornerback Dre' Bly, which set up another field goal by Hanson, a 49-yarder at 5:07 to give the Lions a 16-13 edge.
On the Patriots' next possession, Brady was sacked deep in his own territory, lost the ball, and fullback Heath Evans recovered in the end zone for a safety. Armed with an 18-13 lead, the Lions got the ball back and drove to the Patriots' 8. Facing fourth and 1, coach Rod Marinelli elected for a 26-yard field goal to go ahead, 21-13.
"We were looking for a measurement; I couldn't see how close it was," Marinelli said. "If it would have been a bit closer, we might have taken a shot there, but the way we were playing, especially on defense during that time, I felt good getting up by 8."
It ended up being a turning point.
The Patriots went to the no-huddle and drove nine plays for a touchdown, Dillon rumbling in from 2 yards out. Then Brady hit Brown for the 2-point conversion, drilling a pass over the middle to tie the game at 21.
Then it went turnover-turnover-turnover, Vrabel intercepting a pass, Watson losing a fumble, then Colvin coming up with the big strip sack which set the Patriots up at the Lions' 32. The Patriots then drove for the winning score, Dillon going around left end and hitting the pylon with 2:33 left.
"Just have to give our guys credit for stepping up and making plays there at the end of the game that we needed to make," coach Bill Belichick said. "Fortunately we made some at the end of the half as well. We kind of got our two-minute offense going and we were able to produce something with that. It's good to win. It's good to be 9-3."