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Car Max Keys to the Starting Lineup: A Sunday night shootout in Detroit

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Week 3 has certainly offered up plenty of pretty interesting storylines in New England, which always seems to be near the epicenter of the NFL world.

First and foremost, Bill Belichick’s team is looking to bounce back from last Sunday’s AFC title game rematch loss in Jacksonville, a 31-20 defeat that the Jaguars controlled pretty much from start to finish.

Then there was the curiously-delayed acknowledgment of the trade arrival of former Browns All-Pro Josh Gordon, adding potential and star power to the undermanned wide receiver position in New England.

Finally, is this week’s matchup with the Lions in Detroit against a winless Lions (0-2) team led by 14-year Patriots assistant Matt Patricia. It’s the latest battle between Belichick and one of his former assistants.

Oh, and for good measure there was the issue of Rob Gronkowski popping up as limited on the injury report due to an ankle issue on Thursday only to be removed a day later.

All are issues sure to be talked about in the extra hours leading up to Sunday Night Football and by the Football Night in America crew. But, really, all that matters in the end according to Tom Brady as he prepares to take on his former practice field foe Patricia is the same thing that always matters.

“It’s going to come down to how well we execute,” Brady said, something that could come a bit easier against a Lions team that’s allowed 78 totals points in its pair of season-opening losses than was the case against the Jags upstart defense that’s among the best in football.

As the Patriots try to bounce back from a loss, something they’ve done so well so many times over the years of the Belichick/Brady era, here are some Keys to what has the potential to be a high-scoring affair Sunday night at Ford Field.

Gordon’s debut?: Gordon brings both potential and baggage to his new job. But no one would question the need for New England to add to its personnel at receiver. That need paired with Gordon’s unique talents could call for the former Brown to be active and on the field against the Lions. Brady left the door open for the possibility that the talented outside receiver could have a small package of plays, something that New England has done over the years with other players. It certainly would be fun to see Gordon dress and get a handful of snaps – go routes and slants at the very least – to give Patricia and the Lions defense something else to deal with.

Throw to win – The Patriots have been a pass-first team for the bulk of the Brady era. Sunday night in Detroit that should certainly be the case against a Lions team that’s dealing with injuries to its two best defenders – cornerback Darius Slay missed two days of practice with a concussion while pass rusher Ziggy Ansah continues to be limited with a shoulder issue – and has allowed its first two opponents a combined 117.7 passer rating. Brady has been solid (104.1 rating and 67.7 completion percentage) to open the season and should continue to find room to work against a Detroit defense that’s very much a work in progress in the early stages of Patricia’s time running the show.

Third down defense – The Patriots just couldn’t get off the field on third down in Jacksonville last Sunday. Blake Bortles found wide open targets for easy throws far too often. After an opening day that included the coverage and pass rush working pretty well in concert against the Texans, neither was nearly good enough against the Jaguars. If that’s the case again this week Matthew Stafford and his pretty deep crop of targets will have a field day and probably put up even bigger numbers than Bortles and Co. Brian Flores’ banged up defense needs to find a way to tighten things up in a lot of areas, but third down would top the list.

Get Gronk going – While Gordon is a fun new weapon to keep an eye on, getting Gronkowski going would be a big first step toward a big day for the Patriots passing game in Detroit. Gronkowski was held to just two catches by the talented, athletic Jags. Despite the scare with the ankle injury on Thursday, he sounds like he’s good to go in terms of health against the Lions. Getting the big guy going early would be a nice way to put some heat on the home team and open things up for Brady’s other, less-dangerous targets. Coming from Belichick’s school of defense, Patricia will likely do plenty to try to take Gronkowksi out of the game. But when the All-Pro is really rolling, that doesn’t matter. With Julian Edelman still out the equation, Gronkowski needs to be a productive part of the game plan.

Tackle – The Patriots pass rush and coverage are clearly a work in progress. That won’t get any easier with safety Patrick Chung and defensive end Trey Flowers both missing practice all week to concussions. With the key veteran duo doubtful to play, the Patriots are undermanned against a passing attack that will spread the ball around to the likes of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and Theo Riddick, among others. They are going to get their catches, but unlike a week ago New England needs to do a better job limiting the damage in terms of run-after-catch. That could be especially important for Dont’a Hightower and the linebackers as they face an aerial attack that’s completed 22 passes to its top running backs in two games.

Start fast – The Jaguars fed the home crowd last week with a 14-0 first quarter lead. It not only allowed them to control the game but gave the fans reason to contribute to a winning environment. Things are not going well in Detroit right now. The crowd for this prime time game will be ready to make its voice heard. If the Patriots get off to a fast start it could turn the home crowd against the home team and its coach. Conversely, though, allowing the Lions to make some big plays early could be a boon for the Stafford-led squad seeking its first win.

Prediction: With both defenses struggling a bit early in the season and two teams led by proven, veteran passers this game as the feel of a high-scoring, pass-happy shootout. Stafford has thrown 99 passes in two games, so expecting him to toss it around another 50-plus times seems likely. And Brady should be licking his chops looking at the Lions pass defense. The defensive injuries are a big part of the concern for both teams. The chess battle between Patricia and Belichick (as well as New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) could cause for some unexpected wrinkles. That could lead to turnovers/big plays for either team that might be of the game-changing variety. But, more likely is that both teams put up yards and numbers. It says here that Brady, Gronkowski and, yes, even Gordon make more plays for the visitors. Also look for some changes in the Patriot secondary – maybe reps for rookie J.C. Jackson or safety work for Jason McCourty – that could alter the back end’s look. Overall, though, if you are a fan of defense this game may not be for you. Look for New England to put up the 35-21 victory for its second win of the young season to add more heat to Patricia’s seat in Detroit.

What do you think of our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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