Patriots keep opponents guessing

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There was considerable discussion about what New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray would do for an encore after rushing for 201 yards, being named AFC Player of the Week and landing on the cover of a national sports magazine.

The debate centered on whether his performance was an anomaly or the start of a productive, electric Patriots career.

Here's what he did on Sunday: nothing.

Nothing at all. Gray stood on the sideline with his helmet strap carefully tucked around his chin without getting onto the field for a single snap while his team completely dismantled the Detroit Lions 34-9.

You don't need to be a Rhodes Scholar or an analytics genius to discern that Gray's tardy arrival at practice Friday played a major role in his disappearing act.

It's one thing to be an All-Pro cornerback who shows up late to the facility, as Darrelle Revis did earlier this season -- and still started the following game. It's quite another to be a rescue from the practice squad who was given the opportunity of a lifetime, then botched it within days by breaking one of the rules that's guaranteed to trigger the wrath of Bill Belichick.

"We do what we think is best," Belichick said when asked why Gray didn't play. "That's what we did today."

It won't shock anyone to learn the Patriots don't need Gray to win football games, especially when they are lined up against the league's top defense (15.6 points a game before the Lions' drubbing at Gillette), whose strength lies in the front line, specifically tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Even if Gray's phone battery hadn't died (thereby preventing his alarm from going off) and he had arrived at Foxborough a full two hours early on Friday, he still wasn't going to get a bunch of touches Sunday.

The Patriots have morphed into the NFL's most adept chameleons, rushing for 246 yards and four touchdowns one week and throwing for 349 yards the next. Who knows what they'll throw at the Green Bay Packers next week at Lambeau Field in a battle of legitimate heavyweights?

This ability to change and adapt to the opponent is not limited to just the offense. The defense has also proved to exhibit a similar strain of versatility.

Revis has proclaimed his defensive secondary "hybrids" because they are so interchangeable.

"This is the probably the best group of guys I've been around in terms of everybody being so talented and fitting in together so well," he said.

"Whatever the game plan is, we stick to it," safety Devin McCourty said. "You see around here that one game we're in zone, then the next game we're primarily in man-to-man.

"It's running smoothly because we put the time in. It has to make it tough for the offense we're playing because they have to prepare for so many things, and even then they're not quite sure what's coming."

The Patriots have won seven straight and have outscored opponents 277-175. They aren't just beating up the usual AFC East scrubs, either. They have croaked playoff-bound Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis and now Detroit.

The resurgence of their offensive capabilities coincided with the ability of tight end Rob Gronkowski to shake free from the rust (and yes, a bit of the hesitancy) that comes with major knee surgery.

The offensive line has found its rhythm, Brady has bonded with Brandon LaFell, and when all else fails, he knows he can always jam it in there to Julian Edelman, who continues to prove to be every bit as durable and hardscrabble as the departed Wes Welker.

Brady's charges are operating so seamlessly, they barely missed a step in integrating running back LeGarrette Blount back into the mix.

Blount was told to beat it by conference rival Pittsburgh earlier this week for being a negative influence in the Steelers' locker room. He immediately signed with the Patriots, the guys he ground out 166 yards and four touchdowns for last year during a playoff win against Indianapolis.

His numbers weren't nearly that gaudy Sunday, but in one afternoon Blount managed to match his touchdown total (two) from his 11 weeks with the Steelers.

Asked how it felt to be an integral part of an offense again, Blount grinned and answered, "It was great. Refreshing."

That's one word to describe it. The Patriots continue to build their case that they are the best -- and perhaps the deepest -- team in football.

It defies the imagination that when both Jerod Mayo and Chandler Jones were lost to injuries, somehow New England's run defense improved.

Yet, as it has many times during this winning streak, the defense made a critical stand in the critical moment of the game.

Early in the second quarter with New England nursing a 7-3 lead, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford lined his team up with a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The Patriots stuffed running back Joique Bell, then Revis broke up Stafford's throw to Calvin Johnson, then Patrick Chung blew up Joseph Fauria in the end zone.

Detroit had to settle for three points, which proved to be a huge momentum swing when Danny Amendola ran back the ensuing kickoff 81 yards.

Two plays later, the Patriots punched it in the end zone on a 3-yard rush from Blount and never looked back.

For those who are worried this team may start to believe its own press clippings, fear not. The Patriots have the right coach in place to combat any inkling of complacency.

In fact, team and league sources confirmed, Belichick let his team know following the victory over Detroit that he would not tolerate any tardy players on his team. Although he did not single out Gray by name, sources said, the young running back -- and the rest of his teammates -- got the message.

While at first glance it might seem odd that Belichick would chide his team after such an impressive victory, this is actually classic Belichick behavior.

Go back and ask veterans from his Super Bowl teams and they will explain in explicit detail how Belichick went to extraordinary lengths to make sure his players constantly felt discomfort in an effort to keep them edgy and locked in to the job at hand.

Since Revis knows a little something about how Gray feels, he offered his support following the win.

"It was kind of heartbreaking in a way," Revis conceded. "I talked with him, but he knows he has to abide by the rules."

Gray likely will have another opportunity before the season is over, perhaps as soon as next week in Green Bay. But now he will be sharing snaps with Blount, who is highly motivated to prove he's part of the solution, not part of the problem.

It is a lovely quandary to have, two young power running backs vying for touches and playing time.

"I have no idea how it will go," Blount confessed. "I'm just happy to be here."

Hard to blame him.