DETROIT – Third preseason games at Detroit have not been pleasant for the Patriots on two previous, recent occasions. In 2013, the Lions devoured New England 40-9, after having walloped the Patriots 34-10 two years earlier.
Of course, Bill Belichick's squads advanced to the AFC Championship Game in both seasons, as well as Super Bowl XLVI in 2011. Detroit, meanwhile, lost its wildcard playoff game in '11 and failed to make the postseason in '13.
So, while third preseason contests are universally regarded as the preseason's primary tune-ups for the upcoming regular season, they aren't always perfect indicators of how a team will finish the year.
This Friday night in Detroit, it was New England doing almost all the damage, blanking the Lions 24-0 after one quarter of play. However, the one wound the Lions did inflict at the outset could prove to be a significant one.
On the game's opening drive, the Patriots found themselves moving the football with ease against a relatively tame Lions defense. However, wide receiver Julian Edelman appeared to suffer a serious injury to his right knee on the possession. The play was a 2nd-and-3 from the Detroit 32. Quarterback Tom Brady fired a shotgun pass over the middle to Edelman, who made the catch, turned up-field, and encountered a trio of Lions defenders. It looked as if Edelman was hurt when he planted his right leg to avoid a defender.
Edelman immediately rolled over on the turf and grabbed his right knee. He managed to lift himself up, but limped noticeably to the Patriots sideline, where he underwent an examination inside a pop-up blue tent (a new feature on NFL sidelines this season).
After Edelman was carted off to the locker room for further observation and treatment, the Patriots announced that he was questionable to return to action in the game. He was later declared out and never returned to the field.
"You never want to see a guy go down," tight end Rob Gronkowski lamented later. "Just hope the best for him. Didn't really see it. I don't know what's going on [with him]. Hoping it's nothing serious."
"I didn't even see the play," maintained running back Dion Lewis, "but it's tough to see that happen to a guy like him who works so hard. I don't know exactly what it is, but… I saw him get up hobbling. He's a pretty tough guy, so, I knew it was something [bad]. Whatever it may be, I know he's going to bounce back. He works hard. He'll be okay."
Of course, it remains to be seen just how severe this injury is.
The New England Patriots take on the Detroit Lions in a preseason game at Ford Field on Friday, August 25, 2017.
In the meantime, it's not as if New England doesn't have enough weaponry on offense to survive a potential Edelman loss, regardless of how long he may be out of commission. Certainly, Brady may miss one of his most reliable targets, and that could change some of what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels envisioned with a fully loaded arsenal of talent at his disposal. But New England still has Rob Gronkowski, Brandin Cooks, and many others to make plays.
What's most disappointing is that Edelman looked so dominant and was looking to carry that over into the regular season, and perhaps appear in consecutive 16-game seasons for the first time in his career. At this point, that's still a possibility, provided Friday's scare is nothing more than that.
In the interim, there was plenty of reason to be encouraged by the performance of the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Even after Edelman departed, the offense, under the direction of Brady, carved up the Lions, both through the air and on the ground. Chris Hogan stepped up on the receiving end of things, with four magnificent grabs, two of which went for touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Mike Gillislee's debut in the Patriots backfield was a resounding success, as he scored on his very first and second touches (a touchdown and ensuing two-point conversion). Coming off a hamstring injury that limited him all spring and summer, the veteran free agent showed a nice combination of speed and power carrying the football.
"No matter which one of us is out there, we all make plays: receivers, tight ends, running backs," declared Gillislee. "All these guys are known for making plays. We saw it tonight, too."
McDaniels and head coach Bill Belichick had to be pleased enough with what they saw that, by halftime, it became clear that the starters would be done for the night.
On defense in the first half, when most of the starters on both sides were on the field,
New England's pass rush didn't quite exert itself on Lions QB Matthew Stafford with any consistency, but that was to be expected, given the attrition the Patriots have suffered at that spot this summer.
However, the overall play of the cornerbacks stood out. Malcolm Butler led them off with a forced fumble on the Lions' first play. Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe knocked down and/or intercepted several other Matthew Stafford passes, and all made a number of nice open-field tackles.
Yes, Butler surrendered a deep touchdown reception just before halftime, but this secondary is showing the big-play potential that many observers felt was possible heading into 2017.
The Lions clawed back fiercely in the second half, but by then, New England was playing all backups. In this game, only the first half of action truly mattered, and what transpired came as no surprise.
"It was a good start," Gronkowski added. "Coming out fast, scoring a touchdown on the first drive – that's how you want to start a ballgame."
We already expected New England's offense to be very good, and its defense to be strongest at the back end, with question marks remaining up front. So, it wouldn't be wise to get too excited or disappointed about anything we witnessed at Ford Field Friday night, with the exception of Edelman's health status.
His injury was the most significant development to result from this game and, until the situation becomes clearer, is sure to dominant discussion as the Patriots return to Foxborough and enter the final week of the preseason.