NFL Preview - New England (8-2) at Detroit (2-8)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As one of three teams tied for the best record in the NFL, the New England Patriots have to be feeling good about their present position as they head into this holiday season. On the other hand, the Detroit Lions once again have little to be thankful for at this time of year.
The lowly Lions hope to break their recent tradition of losing badly on Thanksgiving when the long-running doormats host their annual late-November tilt Thursday at Ford Field. The task doesn't figure to be easy, however, with the powerful Patriots surging into the Motor City off back-to-back uplifting wins over a pair of prime AFC contenders.
New England appears to be in excellent shape in regards to obtaining a seventh postseason trip in the past eight seasons, having so far amassed a stellar 8-2 record that's tied with the AFC East-rival New York Jets for the top spot in the conference. The Patriots haven't built that impressive mark by beating up on softies either, as four of those victories (Baltimore, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis) have come against teams regarded among the upper echelon of the AFC.
The Pats came through with a statement win by taking apart the highly-touted Steelers in Pittsburgh back in Week 10, then followed up that 39-26 triumph by outlasting the defending conference champion Colts in another thriller between the clubs this past Sunday. New England avenged a stinging last-second loss to Indianapolis from last season by holding on for a 31-28 decision, getting another deadly-sharp performance out of quarterback Tom Brady and an opportunistic display from its defense to prevail.
New England intercepted Colts legend Peyton Manning three times, with the final pick coming with Indianapolis in range for a potential game-tying field goal with only 31 seconds to go in regulation. Brady aided the cause by putting together a more efficient outing than his fellow star counterpart, with the two-time Super Bowl MVP completing 19-of-25 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns without committing a turnover.
The gritty win set the stage for a possible titanic showdown with the co- division leading Jets in New England next week, provided the Patriots are able to get past a sinking Detroit squad that's usually played like turkeys in its showcase game in years past.
The Lions have lost six straight times on Thanksgiving and have been outscored by a whopping 213-74 margin over the course of that skid. Four of those defeats have come by 20 points or more.
Detroit, which last won on Turkey Day in 2003 (a 22-14 verdict over Green Bay), also won't be entering Thursday's clash with much in the way of momentum. The Lions have lost their past three contests to fall to 2-8 on the season, with two of the setbacks during that stretch coming to AFC East inhabitants Buffalo and the Jets.
The Lions resumed their unsuccessful ways with last Sunday's 35-19 road loss to a rejuvenated Dallas team, with the Cowboys erupting for 28 second-half points to overcome a 12-7 deficit early in the third quarter.
Detroit will also be without starting quarterback Matt Stafford for a third straight week as the 2009 No. 1 overall draft choice continues to recover from a serious shoulder injury, and exciting rookie running back Jahvid Best seems likely to sit out as well due to a lingering turf toe problem that's hindered his production for two months running.
Best, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for September, was used sparingly in the Dallas game and mustered a mere 17 yards from scrimmage on seven touches (four receptions, three rush attempts). The young playmaker is expected to give way to veteran Maurice Morris as the Lions' primary ball- carrier on Thursday.
The Patriots lead the all-time series with the Lions, 5-4, with New England breaking a deadlock in the series with a 28-21 home victory in 2006. The Pats also won in their last trip to Detroit, a 20-12 triumph in 2002. The Lions' most recent win over New England came in 2000, a 34-9 home victory.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is 2-3 against Detroit in his career, including an 0-2 mark while at the helm of the Browns (1991-95). The Lions' Jim Schwartz will be meeting both Belichick and New England for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
One of the most proficient offenses in all of football will be showcased on Thursday, as New England leads the NFL with an average of 28.9 points per game and ranks fifth overall in third-down success rate (44.8 percent). Those outstanding numbers are in a large part due to Brady (2362 passing yards, 19 TD, 4 INT), who's vaulted himself near the forefront of early MVP discussion with his remarkable play under center. The five-time Pro Bowl honoree enters this Week 12 test having thrown 172 passes without an interception and continues to excel despite a revolving door of receivers that's remained strong despite the team's surprise jettisoning of proven playmaker Randy Moss last month. Veteran Deion Branch (43 receptions, 1 TD) has helped offset Moss' departure since being re-acquired from Seattle in a midseason trade, having posted consecutive games with seven catches and at least 70 receiving yards, while rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez (35 receptions, 3 TD) and Rob Gronkowski (20 receptions, 6 TD) have each made a quick transition to the pro game to lend further support. And don't forget the Pats still sport arguably the league's premier slot receiver in Wes Welker (57 receptions, 4 TD), who's on track for a fourth straight season of at least 90 grabs. New England has also gotten good production from its no-name running back duo of undrafted free agents BenJarvus Green-Ellis (568 rushing yards, 7 TD) and sparkplug Danny Woodhead (312 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 4 total TD), with the pair combining for 165 rushing yards in last week's win over the Colts. Woodhead is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per carry as the third-down specialist and provides Brady with another capable target out of the backfield.
The Lions will attempt to neutralize Brady, who's been sacked only twice over the past four weeks, with a stout pass rush anchored by rookie sensation Ndamukong Suh (41 tackles, 1 INT), who's amassed seven sacks from his interior tackle position through his first 10 games as a pro. Experienced end Kyle Vanden Bosch (49 tackles, 4 sacks) is another accomplished disruptor on a unit that's racked up a solid 27 sacks for the year, and Detroit hopes to have speed rusher Cliff Avril (19 tackles, 4 sacks) back this week from a quadriceps injury that's sidelined him for the past two contests. Cornerback Alphonso Smith (37 tackles, 5 INT, 8 PD) is the standout of a young secondary that was burned for three touchdown passes by Dallas' Jon Kitna in Sunday's loss, and the Lions could use some shoring up in the area of run defense, as they've allowed an average of 130.6 rushing yards per game (26th overall) thus far. Detroit permitted 134 yards on the ground to a usually-stagnant Cowboys' rushing attack in Week 11, with Suh leading the team with eight tackles and linebackers DeAndre Levy (29 tackles) and Julian Peterson (57 tackles, 1 sack) each coming up with seven stops.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Despite only having had the brittle Stafford available for one full game and parts of two others, Detroit still has compiled the sixth-most passing yards in the league (268.9 ypg) this season. Backup quarterback Shaun Hill (1921 passing yards, 12 TD, 9 INT) has been quite serviceable as a fill-in, with the offseason pickup averaging 290 yards through the air in the six outings he's started and completed. He's got plenty of quality options to work with, including an unquestioned No. 1 receiver in the freakishly-talented Calvin Johnson (55 receptions, 725 yards), a 6-foot-5, 236-pound matchup nightmare who paces the NFC with 10 touchdown catches. Ex-Seahawk Nate Burleson (37 receptions, 4 TD) has shown to be a very good complement to Johnson, and the free-agent addition is coming off a seven-reception, 97-yard effort against the Cowboys, while promising youngster Brandon Pettigrew (50 receptions, 3 TD) is developing into one of the game's top all-around tight ends during a breakthrough sophomore campaign. The 2009 first-round selection is tied for the NFL lead in catches at his position and delivered eight grabs totaling 75 yards last week. Morris (41 rushing yards, 11 receptions) will step into the featured back's role if Best is unable to go, with fullback Jerome Felton (50 rushing yards) and little-used second-year man Aaron Brown (22 rushing yards, 4 receptions) also factoring into the mix. None possesses Best's explosiveness or pass-catching skills, as the rookie's 375 receiving yards ranks fourth among running backs this year.
Hill should be able to find some holes in a New England defense that's given up the second-most passing yards in the NFL (289.6 ypg) as well as a league- worst 69.4 completion percentage, with Manning putting up a massive 396 yards and tossing four touchdown strikes against the young secondary last week. Still, the Patriots were able to force three critical interceptions in the big win, and a pass rush that generated five sacks in the Week 10 victory at Pittsburgh managed to throw Manning out of rhythm on several occasions. Lineman Mike Wright (14 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (30 tackles, 3 sacks) have been the team's best pressure creators, while rookie cornerback Devin McCourty (54 tackles, 3 INT, 10 PD) has displayed considerable improvement after struggling at the outset of his pro debut. Don't anticipate the Lions getting their 31st-ranked running game (80.5 ypg) untracked on a pretty sound front seven headed up by ultra-active inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (120 tackles, 1 sack) and two-time All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork (34 tackles). Mayo is the league's leading tackler by a wide margin and came up with a game-high 15 stops (11 solo) versus the Colts.
While Brady's overall numbers haven't been anything outrageous, he remains a solid and reliable fantasy quarterback worthy of starting status. The remainder of New England's offensive allotment carry greater risk factors, since they're a team that relies on spreading the ball around, but Welker is usually a safe choice in leagues that gives points for receptions. Branch isn't a bad option as well at wide receiver, as he's put together two good games in a row, and Green-Ellis is a usable running back. Keep on eye on Gronkowski, the Patriots' leader with six touchdown catches, and Woodhead has some value for those in need of a flex player. Hernandez owners should lean towards sitting the young tight end, who's been a lesser part of the game plan in recent weeks, but New England's ability to put up points makes new kicker Shayne Graham a passable start. Johnson is the clear-cut must-start on the Detroit side, with Pettigrew having elevated himself into a recommended selection at tight end with his spike in production as of late. Hill doesn't rate as a No. 1 quarterback in the fantasy realm, but won't hurt those who play in leagues that need to carry two at the position. Keep the banged-up Best on the bench this week, and Lions kicker Jason Hanson is a questionable call after having missed two straight games with a knee injury. Neither defense is an attractive pick, as both these teams can be high scoring.
The respective records of this two teams may lead one to believe another one- sided outcome to begin the Thanksgiving Day slate is in store. Keep in mind that the Lions have been very competitive at home this year, however, having won two times by double-digits and losing twice by three points, including an overtime defeat to the formidable New York Jets. Detroit does have the weapons to do some damage on a New England defense that's had its shaky moments at times during the season, and the Lions should be inspired to give a good account of themselves in a rare spot on a national stage. Still, Brady and Belichick is a superior combo to Hill and Schwartz, and the professional Patriots know they can't afford a letdown against a very beatable opponent in the midst of a heated playoff race.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Lions 27
11/23 10:30:51 ET