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Replay: Patriots Unfiltered Thu Dec 03 | 04:00 PM - 11:59 PM

Game Matchups: Brandon LaFell emerging as a legit No. 2 receiver

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN


It's always best to take a wait-and-see approach with New England's running game, since you never know who will get the bulk of the carries or whether or not the Patriots will legitimately commit to the run before letting the red-hot Tom Brady take over. Since Stevan Ridley went down with a season-ending injury, unheralded running back Jonas Gray has emerged as their best runner between the tackles, but Shane Vereen is still the most explosive because of his ability to contribute in the passing game. Regardless of who gets the bulk of the carries, it'll be difficult to do much against Detroit's second-ranked run defense. The Lions have shut down teams with a much deeper group of backs, so it's hard to imagine the Patriots getting much done. ADVANTAGE: LIONS

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WHEN THE LIONS RUN


The Lions haven't been able to get it going all season with their committee approach. They entered Week 11 ranked 31st out of 32 teams with just 77.8 rushing yards per game. Reggie Bush missed two games with an injury, returned against Miami in early November and then left that game with another injury, though coach Jim Caldwell said it's nothing serious. In place of Bush, Joique Bell hasn't done much, averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. This is perfect for New England, which is struggling to stop the run because of the absence of Jerod Mayo and its lack of depth up front. The Patriots can comfortably run their nickel packages and employ multiple defensive backs without the risk of Detroit racking up an abundance of rushing yards. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS


Detroit has been one of the league's best teams defensively all season, but the Patriots are on a roll right now, particularly Brady, who threw three or more touchdown passes in four consecutive games between mid-October and early November. Brady's stretch of dominance rivals that of any hot streak during the course of his career, even some of his best runs during his record-breaking 2007 season. That's how locked-in he is right now. With Brandon LaFell emerging as a legit No. 2 receiver and tight end Rob Gronkowski back to being the dominant force he was prior to the forearm and knee injuries, it's hard to bet against New England when Brady drops back to pass, even against a Detroit defense that entered Week 11 ranked No. 2 in third-down efficiency and No. 3 in fewest passing yards allowed per game. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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WHEN THE LIONS PASS


This is no longer just the Calvin Johnson show. With "Megatron" banged up for most of the year, the Lions have been forced to utilize other players, namely the newly acquired Golden Tate, who has proven he's more than just a big-play threat. Tate has developed into a reliable target for Matthew Stafford and with Johnson healthy and back in the fold, the Lions are once again a threat to wear out any defensive backfield. This won't be an easy task, but the Patriots have depth on their side. They're at their best in nickel coverage when they're rotating backs from a deep talent pool that includes the unheralded Patrick Chung, Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis. Browner in particular has added a much-needed physical presence. The Patriots still commit too many penalties, but they're a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS


The Patriots have produced several of what Bill Belichick likes to call "total team effort" wins, meaning there are contributions on offense, defense and special teams, none more impressive than their blowout win over Denver in which Julian Edelman broke the game open with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Patriots have also blocked two field goals this year with one returned for a touchdown and the other sealing a critical win over the Jets. The Lions are among the league's best return teams with Jeremy Ross handling kickoff and punt returns, but the Patriots entered Week 11 allowing the third fewest kickoff return yards per game, so it's tough to get much going on special teams against this unit. Combine that with kicker Stephen Gostkowski's remarkable consistency and the Patriots have a distinct edge. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS


Since the league realigned in 2002, no team has been better against the NFC than New England with a staggering 41-9 record, which includes a thrashing of the Chicago Bears earlier this season. This is also the time of year when New England plays its best football, especially at home. Those factors weigh heavily when comparing intangibles. The Lions are strong defensively and road teams seem to have a chance as long as they survive that initial flurry and settle into a rhythm, but it's hard to bet against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, plus they haven't lost to Detroit in 14 years and haven't lost to them at home since 1993. The Patriots also entered Week 11 as one of the league's hottest teams with five consecutive wins. Foul weather could play a factor, too, as it always does at this time of year in New England. ADVANTAGE: PATRIOTS

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