Patriots vs. Lions preview

When: 1 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough TV: Fox

Who has it tougher than the Detroit Lions over Weeks 11 and 12 of the NFL season?

Back-to-back road games against the top teams in the NFC (Arizona) and AFC (New England Patriots) provide a nice measuring stick as to where the 7-3 Lions stand in the NFL’s ever-evolving landscape (the Lions lost, 14-6, to the Cardinals).

Meanwhile, the 8-2 Patriots have won six in a row after they bottomed out in a 41-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” on Sept. 29. Do they get caught looking ahead to next week’s highly anticipated game at the Green Bay Packers?

For more on the Lions-Patriots matchup, ESPN reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Mike Reiss (Patriots) break it down:

Reiss: Michael, the Lions are the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL, allowing an average of just 15.6 points per game. What do they do well and who are the players Patriots fans should know about?

Rothstein: Everything starts with Detroit’s defensive line, which is anchored by Ndamukong Suh. While he may not always bring big stats, teams know they have to double-team him every play. This typically opens up rush lanes on the edge for Ezekiel Ansah and George Johnson. The line was even more powerful when Nick Fairley was healthy, but as the Lions have done with every defensive injury this season, they have been able to plug-and-play pretty well. The run defense should have taken a hit when Fairley went down, but C.J. Mosley and ends-playing-inside Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp have continued to keep the interior gaps sound. Much of this credit has to go to defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who has played to individuals’ strengths extremely well and constantly incorporates in-game feedback from players into his adjustments. That has helped with pressure up front and also with Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo helping mask coverages in the secondary. DeAndre Levy, who is the best linebacker in the league that no one knows, is stellar in coverage and has enough speed to cover most of the field if necessary.

People in Michigan have obviously known about Tom Brady for a long time. It seems even as he has aged, not much has changed. Are there subtle differences in his game or what he’s doing this season?

Reiss: One thing that has stood out is his willingness and ability to keep plays alive with his feet. Brady is known for a lot of things, but mobility isn’t one of them and he joked earlier this year that there isn’t one cell in his body that tells him to run. This has shown up numerous times over the team’s six-game winning streak, with a third-and-19 touchdown strike to Danny Amendola against the New York Jets on Oct. 16 -- in which Brady scrambled to his left out of the pocket to buy more time -- one of the most notable examples. He might need to call on that Sunday against that strong Lions’ defensive front.

Offensively for the Lions, how accurate would it be to say that Golden Tate has been the bigger threat than Calvin Johnson in 2014?

Rothstein: It’s accurate mostly because Johnson has been out or limited for most of the season (ankle). When Johnson is healthy, he is still Detroit’s No. 1 target and the best receiver in the game, but Tate has become an increasingly dangerous receiver as well. What makes Tate so difficult to deal with is what he does after the catch. He can take a short route and wiggle through small creases and out of tackles to gain extra yardage. It’s something he actually practices during the week, too, so it isn’t just all instinct there. Tate’s hands are also some of the best in the league and Matthew Stafford trusts him because of it. If both Johnson and Tate are playing well, that’s probably going to be a bad day for a defense.

The Lions are struggling on offense, but the New England defense, at least statistically, appears to be good but not great in a lot of areas. Where have teams with strong passing attacks been able to exploit the Patriots?

Reiss: The first thing to look at with the Patriots’ defense, as it relates to the overall success of the team, is turnover differential. At plus-11, they are tied for the second-best mark in the NFL with 19 takeaways and eight giveaways. So they take the ball away at a good clip on defense and protect it pretty well on offense. Teams that have had success against the Patriots don’t turn the ball over, first and foremost. Another area where the Patriots have been exploited at times is the running game. The Dolphins totaled 191 rushing yards in Week 1 with a steady diet of inside zone calls. The Chiefs totaled 207 rushing yards in a Week 4 beatdown, and the Jets had 218 in a close call in Week 7. The Patriots’ defense is obviously a different unit now than they were at those points in the season.

We love our local guys here in New England. What has former Patriot and University of Massachusetts alum Ihedigbo brought to the Lions this year?

Rothstein: He’s done a lot when he’s been healthy. He missed the first three games with a neck/shoulder injury, but he gives Detroit a strong run-stopper in the secondary and a hard hitter. While coverage was not a strength for him in the past, he’s made some big plays on passes this season, including an interception and a critical end zone pass breakup against Miami two weeks ago. He’s provided a strong complement to Quin and his run-stopping has allowed Quin to play free safety, where he is one of the better safeties at roaming against big plays in the league. Unlike Louis Delmas, who played safety for Detroit last season, Ihedigbo is a consistent player who rarely makes mistakes. He and Quin have been critical in Detroit’s ability to limit big plays.

Jonas Gray seemed to come out of nowhere last week. Does he have staying power in the New England offense or is he a guy that happened to just have one amazing night? Would facing his hometown team change that motivation at all?

Reiss: He’ll be here, Michael. The Patriots have been high on Gray since training camp and Bill Belichick acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy decision to release him at the final roster cut down to 53 players in hopes of putting him on the practice squad. This is somewhat similar to the 2008 season when the Patriots had BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the practice squad initially before grooming him for a bigger role. At 230 pounds, Gray is a downhill runner who looks for contact. The one thing I’d say this week is that the Patriots, who pride themselves on being a game-plan type offense that changes significantly on a week-to-week basis to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the opponent, might not run it much because the Lions have been so good in that area (No. 1 in the NFL, 68.8 yards average per game, 3.0 average per rush).