Foxborough, Mass. — If the Lions ever plan to play at the highest level, at least now they know what it looks like. They saw it up close, against the best, and the result was brutal and revealing.
The Lions aren't the first team to get picked to pieces by Tom Brady, but this was such an easy picking, you have to wonder if the real Patriots exposed the real Lions. New England carved up Detroit's top-rated defense in a 34-9 rout Sunday, but that wasn't even the explicit part. The Lions' offense continued to trip all over itself, seemingly worse by the week.
Mathew Stafford threw wildly, scattered all day. Receivers dropped balls and an already battered offensive line got more battered. Someone — the head coach, the coordinator, the quarterback — needs to find answers before the offense wrecks a promising season.
If this was an unofficial test of the Lions' authenticity, it was an utter failure. They neglected to score a touchdown for the second straight game, and don't look now — seriously, don't look now — but the slope is getting slippery again. They just played the NFL's top two teams, the Patriots and Cardinals, and didn't dent the end zone at either place. The Lions are 7-4 heading into a three-game home stretch, starting Thanksgiving against the Bears, and if they take care of business at home, they're fine, playoff-wise.
But they're not fine anywhere on offense. It was as if the Patriots were creating art and the Lions were coloring outside the lines. Now Jim Caldwell has arrived at the spot every Lions coach eventually reaches, his team's legitimacy under scrutiny.
Obviously, something has to change with the offense, before ugly visions of Collapses Past stir anew.
"We just didn't play well, in any phase," Caldwell said. "I'm not sure on drastic changes. I'm not one of those that will make rash decisions right after a game when everybody's disappointed."
Dropping the ball
There's no huge shame in losing to the Patriots, who have won 15 straight at home and are 89-13 here under Brady. But the disparity was staggering. It was the first time all season the Lions surrendered more than 24 points, and the Patriots took pretty much whatever they wanted.
Brady completed 38 of 53 passes for 349 yards, connecting 11 times with Julian Edelman. Stafford completed 18 of 46 for 264. New England rolled up 439 yards against a defense that was allowing a league-best 290.
For the Lions, only Golden Tate was effective. Passes were dropped everywhere, including in the end zone by tight end Joe Fauria on third down from the 2. Calvin Johnson joined the epidemic, too, and Stafford's inaccuracy didn't help.
The biggest concern is, there's no clear way to fix it. Hoping Stafford improves is one way, I suppose. But the line, which lost right tackle Riley Reiff to injury on the first play, has lost its cohesiveness, making Stafford's job tougher.
Last week, first-time coordinator Joe Lombardi said he reduced the play-call list by about 20 percent. Hmm. Looks like he took the wrong 20 percent out.
"This was embarrassing, but the most important thing is not to lose our swagger, our confidence," Tate said. "As receivers, it's imperative we catch the ball when it's thrown to us. I have a lot of confidence in all our pass catchers, despite what anyone's gonna write, say or do. It's not too late. We're still sitting in a great situation, we still have an endless amount of playmakers, we all know that."
But do we? The Lions have playmakers by name, but if the triggerman is misfiring, or doesn't have time to fire, or doesn't have a running game to lean on, any offense can be stuffed.
Nobody made a tough play in scoring position, right down to Stafford's scramble on fourth-and-10 from the Patriots' 25 in the fourth quarter. He slid a half-yard short instead of lunging for the first down, and said afterward, "I gotta get that."
That should be the slogan of the Lions' offense: "I gotta get that." It's not really fair to compare them to the Patriots, who are incomparable right now, winning seven straight and averaging 40 points per game. Bill Belichick and Brady are prepared and savvy, and after running the ball relentlessly the previous week, they fooled the Lions and sped it up with quick passes.
Lions defenders were held without a sack for the second straight week, but were annoyed at any suggestion they were exposed.
"We're still a great defense, one game doesn't change that," said safety James Ihedigbo, who had an interception. "They came out and went uptempo, and did what they do well."
Belichick said the Patriots paid special attention to Ndamukong Suh, who made an impact early with three tackles for loss, then was slowed. After the game, several Patriots players were yelling and gesturing at Suh and Raiola. The Lions' center admitted he delivered a cut block on nose tackle Zach Moore on the final play, when the Lions were taking a knee to mercifully end it.
A smart team drives its opponent to frustration, and neutralizes its strengths while attacking with its own. The Patriots blunted the Lions' touted defense and stymied the Lions' receivers with man coverage by cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (on Tate) and Brandon Browner (on Johnson, with safety help). Stafford didn't know where to throw, and while defense isn't even the Patriots' strength, the Lions sure made it look that way.
"We tried to give them a bunch of different looks," Belichick said. "We had linebackers up inside trying to fake it some, trying to keep them off balance. They get the ball out quick, they've got a lot of great receivers."
It wasn't apparent on this day. Not much of anything was apparent for the Lions, who should be better than this. If they are, now they'll have to show it all over again.