Foxborough, Mass. — The confidence in the locker room isn't waning, but the Lions have cut their margin for error significantly if they hope to win the NFC North.
With a putrid offensive performance and the worst defensive showing of the season, the Lions lost to the New England Patriots, 34-9, Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
After a 7-2 start, the Lions had two opportunities to prove they were legitimate contenders with matchups against the top teams in the AFC — the Patriots — and NFC. Last week they lost to the Arizona Cardinals, 14-6, and on Sunday, the Lions failed on the big stage once again.
And with the loss, the Lions (7-4) lost their spot atop the NFC North, falling a game behind the Green Bay Packers (8-3) who beat the Minnesota Vikings, 24-21.
For the first time since September 2000, the Lions have gone back-to-back weeks without scoring a touchdown, and the offense struggled as it has most of the season, reaching the red zone just once Sunday. Players didn't have any answers for the lack of execution, but remain confident they can improve the floundering unit.
"We've still got time to get things going in the right direction," said wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who had just four catches for 58 yards. "We still are in the driver's seat so to say, so we've got to just turn things around."
But after two straight weeks without a touchdown and no games with more than 24 points since Week 1, how will the offense find its rhythm?
"If I had the answer, we'd turn things around," Johnson said.
Matthew Stafford finished 18 of 46 for 264 yards with one interception and repeatedly missed open targets, either with errant throws or passes to covered receivers. Lions receivers also dropped more than a handful of passes — three of them in the end zone.
Meanwhile, the Patriots (9-2) won their seventh straight game thanks to a masterful performance by Tom Brady, who finished 38 of 53 for 349 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, picking apart the Lions' No. 1-ranked defense with 24 first-half points.
"We just were not sharp today," said Lions coach Jim Caldwell, who opened his news conference by saying the team didn't have a single bright spot.
The Lions also lost their starting left tackle Riley Reiff to a knee injury on the first play of the game, and without him and right guard Larry Warford, the offensive line struggled as it has all year. Starting strong-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer suffered a concussion late in the first quarter and did not return.
The only good news for the Lions right now is they play their next three games at home against teams with losing records — Chicago, Tampa Bay and Minnesota.
Just about everybody on the Lions had a miscue in the first half. Corey Fuller and Joseph Fauria dropped passes in the end zone — Jeremy Ross dropped one in the second half, too. The Lions allowed an 81-yard kickoff return, and the defense allowed touchdowns on three straight drives.
"We blew a lot of coverages," linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "They sped up the tempo a little bit, and I think we kind of lost our composure."
Lions coaches had plenty of errors, too. On their lone red zone drive of the first half, the Lions couldn't score on three plays from the 3 or 2. Caldwell, who denied he managed the game conservatively, also chose to punt on a fourth-and-3 from the New England 39 and try a 53-yard field goal down 21-6. The missed field goal gave the Patriots good field position with 35 seconds left, and they turned it into a field goal.
Tate was one of few players who had a positive impact, as he had three catches for 83 yards and a 13-yard run, but All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis held him to one catch in the second half as he finished with four catches for a team-high 97 yards.
The Lions actually led after Matt Prater hit a 48-yard field goal on the game's opening drive.
But after two three-and-outs by both teams, the Patriots offense started rolling and never stopped. Their first touchdown drive took just 2:37 and covered 64 yards in nine plays, capped by a 4-yard pass from Brady to tight end Tim Wright to give New England a 7-3 lead with 3:10 left in the first quarter.
The Lions responded with a 20-yard field goal to cut it to 7-6 early in the second quarter, but Danny Amendola returned the ensuing kickoff to the Detroit 22. Two plays later, LeGarrette Blount scored on a 3-yard run to give the Patriots a 14-6 lead.
The Lions drove to the New England 39 on the next drive, but punted on fourth-and-3. New England took over at their own 7 and drove 93 yards in 5:03 on 13 plays, taking a 21-6 lead on an 8-yard pass from Brady to Wright.
And after a third-straight touchdown by the Patriots, the Lions squandered another scoring opportunity. They drove to the New England 35, but three incompletions by Stafford led to a 53-yard field goal attempt, which Prater missed wide left.
The miss gave the Patriots the ball at their own 43 with 35 seconds left in the first half, and Brady hit tight end Rob Gronkowski for gains of 24 and 23 yards, leading to a 35-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. At the break, the Patriots led 24-6.
The Lions stopped the Patriots on the first drive of the third quarter as safety James Ihedigbo intercepted a pass on first-and-goal at the 10, but that was the biggest highlight for the defense.
New England added a 43-yard field goal later in the third quarter to go up 27-6. The Lions drove into Petriots territory a few drives later, but settled for a 49-yard Prater field goal that cut the deficit to 27-9, a strange decision considering the Patriots still led by three possessions.
After a three-and-out by the Patriots, the Lions had an impressive drive and reached the New England 25. But on fourth-and-10, Stafford scrambled and slid short of the line to gain to turn it over on downs.
The Patriots added a 1-yard touchdown run by Blount to go up 34-9 with 1:57 remaining in the fourth quarter after a penalty on Lions defensive tackle C.J. Mosley on a field-goal attempt gave them an automatic first down, the final miscue in a day filled with errors.
"I can't wait to get this taste out of our mouths," Tate said. "I don't think this is a time to panic for anyone or be negative. I think this is when we all need to gather around as a city, as an organization and just start ballin'."