Five observations from the Patriots' 45-24 win Thursday over the Lions at Ford Field:
1. Patriots winning games in different ways. The last three weeks have shown the many faces of the New England Patriots, as they have found different ways to beat teams.
Going back to the win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, that was a defense with stout linebackers and a safety in Troy Polamalu who plays instinctively. A bunch of tough guys that want to intimidate their opponent. The Pats attacked their weaknesses and beat them with speed and quickness on offense.
Then there was the win over the Indianapolis Colts and one of the most cerebral quarterbacks in the history of the game, Peyton Manning. The Pats were able to out-think him defensively, disguise coverages and put enough pressure on him to the point where he looked frustrated all game.
Then there was this game, where the Lions hung around early, but the Patriots, with better overall talent, pulled away late. In the classic fashion of a struggling team that garners up some pride in the end, the Lions were fighting back after the whistle and challenging the manhood of the Patriots. How did the Patriots respond? The Patriots pushed back and, believe me, the Patriots can talk trash with the best of them. That was a message, "'If you want to play this game, the Patriots can play it too."
The Patriots have shown that they can get it done in any possible way. If you've got weaknesses, the Patriots will exploit them. If you're a smart team, they can out-think you, too. And if you want to try to play the tough-guy game, they bring it right back at you. Three wins in 12 days have solidified them as Super Bowl contenders.
2. How the Lions hurt the Patriots with early pressure. The way the Lions were getting pressure up the middle of the pocket early in the game, it wasn't a new look for them. They had used it earlier in the season with end Kyle Vanden Bosch off the line, running twists. Tom Brady is a classic drop-back passer, so a good defensive coordinator like Gunther Cunningham and a good head coach with a defensive background like Jim Schwartz are going to focus on getting pressure up the middle of the pocket. You want to get him off the spot, which is the area behind the center, about 5-6 yards. Once you get Brady moving and off the spot, the idea is that the pressure has more time to rally to get to him. That's what Ndamukong Suh and Vanden Bosch were able to do early in the game. The Detroit defensive line was at times the best unit on the field. Suh and Vanden Bosch lead a fierce defensive line that's going to have that team in contention in the near future.
3. Keeping Brady upright. How do you deal with a defensive line that is getting pressure against your quarterback, who has a sore foot? You counter that by running the ball. You could see that after Brady got knocked to the ground a few times, there was a conscious effort to get running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis the ball. Midway through the second quarter, on the Patriots' fourth drive of the game, Green-Ellis had five carries. The Patriots had seen enough of Brady getting knocked around. With the play-calling going more to the run, it gets the defensive line to re-think the attack of pinning its ears back and getting after the quarterback. By establishing the run, it gets the defensive line to anchor down more, slowing down the pass rush, and that means fewer hits your quarterback is going to take ... and keeps him off head athletic trainer Jim Whalen's treatment table.
4. Minus Vince Wilfork, defense struggles. When the Patriots were matching the Lions with their defensive personnel, there were times when defensive lineman Vince Wilfork would come off the field. That's when the Lions had their biggest success running the ball. Not having Wilfork to take up double-teams gives the offensive line the ability to quickly get to the linebackers. You can't slip up to the linebacker until you've gained control or leverage on that down lineman, and when it's Wilfork, it just can't be done as quickly. You have to come down harder on Wilfork, and that extra split second of time it takes for offensive linemen to do that gives Patriot linebackers enough time to flow to the play unblocked and make the tackle. It is another way Wilfork makes a huge difference without filling up the stat sheet.
5. Tom Brady is playing perfect football -- and he has to because of the defense. Tom Brady has not thrown an interception in 199 straight passes. He's playing perfect football and he has to when the defense is giving up so much yardage. When the Patriots don't create turnovers, lesser teams are able to hang with them. It takes those big plays to make a difference, like Devin McCourty's third-quarter interception and safety James Sanders' interception last week.
Down the line, you look at it and ask the question: How long can Tom Brady keep playing perfect football? It's asking a lot from your quarterback to maintain this pace. I think it's safe to say there will be a game down the line where Brady throws an interception. The bigger question is this: Can this defense continue to get two or three turnovers a game? With even average offenses like the Lions putting up 400 yards, that's what it's going to have to be the rest of the way.
Last year the Saints' defense was one that wasn't feared, but was known as one that would make the big play when the game was on the line. Can the Patriots' defense turn into that?