DETROIT – It's a bit of an exercise in hyperbole to deem a Week 3 game a desperation situation, but with the 3-0 Dolphins, who currently top the AFC East, coming to town next week, New England needed a strong showing in Detroit to stay within a game of Miami in the division standings.
That didn't materialize, however, as Bill Belichick's squad got off to its second consecutive slow start on the road. Frustration could be sensed in the visitors locker room afterward, but not quite a sense of worry.
"Every loss is terrible, no matter what it is. Times like this," center/co-captain David Andrews observed, "you just got to go back to work. You can't feel sorry for yourself or sit and sulk. Shake off the bumps and bruises and get back to work. Your back's against the wall."
"I don't want to say 'worried,'" safety Duron Harmon asserted, "because we're in this situation because of ourselves. We have to tip our hat to the Lions. They were better than us, but we obviously know we can play a lot better than this. Nobody's going to help us. We've got to do it ourselves."
Matt Patricia's Lions controlled the ball for nearly all of the first quarter by controlling the line of scrimmage, both when they had the ball and when the Patriots did. Detroit's o-line gave QB Matthew Stafford plenty of time to find open receivers, which he did, completing nine of his first 10 passes. Detroit moved the ball virtually at will against a New England defense that proved ineffective against both the pass and the run.
"You can't win like that. You make it hard on yourself. When our offense doesn't have the ball for most of the game, we're making them [have to] play perfect and score every time," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty lamented.
"We just didn't play well, two weeks in a row… We just didn't play well enough – run game, pass game, third down, red area. We've just got to play better to give ourselves a chance."
With five minutes to go in the first half, the Patriots finally started to show signs of life as QB Tom Brady found his favorite target, TE Rob Gronkowski, a couple of times in what turned out to be New England's first scoring drive of the night.
However, New England's short-yardage running game, with rookie Sony Michel toting the ball, had difficulty picking up what would have been crucial, drive-sustaining first-downs. The Patriots had to settle for a 36-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal to trim Detroit's halftime lead to 13-3.
"We just didn't execute up front. Not making plays. You get stopped on third-and-one, that's not executing," added Andrews. "It's not someone running free, you're just not making the play. It's not like they had seven people in the backfield. We're not making blocks, not making the right decisions."
Rookie linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley was entrusted with a bigger role against Detroit, and he responded by stepping up his performance against the Lions.
In the first half, Bentley was given the responsibility of relaying play-calls from the coaching staff to teammates in the huddle (indicated by a green-dot decal on the back of his helmet). He also made a crucial third-quarter interception while dropping in pass coverage that helped inject life into what had been a mostly stagnant Patriots team to that point.
When Brady found RB James White in the end zone on the ensuing Patriots possession, New England looked well-positioned for a comeback. The Lions responded, though, with a touchdown drive of their own. Stafford connected with WR Marvin Jones, who'd separated from Stephon Gilmore on a deep crossing route.
Was all this a byproduct of Patricia, New England's most recent defensive coordinator, knowing his foe too well? There was certainly an element of that, but remember, the Patriots know Patricia just as well. It seemed more like a matter of the Patriots not having enough playmakers on either side of the ball to match the Lions – a problem that can't just be fixed by watching film or making corrections in practice.
This is a team that isn't playing well enough in any of the three phases of the game. Their 1-2 record is reflective of that fact.
Road games are always a challenge. Now, the Patriots head home for three games, with an undefeated division opponent coming to town next week, and a short turnaround for a Thursday night affair against a tough Colts team thereafter. Then, a high-scoring Kansas City visits Gillette.
"I mean, it's early," Gronkowski observed. "It's a long season. I know we're 1-2 right now, but we have to keep on going. It's football, it's the NFL. Crazy things happen every single week. We've just got to bounce back. Can't put our heads down. We have to keep them up, keep on fighting. There's another week next week against a tough division opponent."
This game in Detroit, so early in the season, may not have been a desperate situation at the start of the night. However, if the Patriots continue to play the way they have the past two weeks, each game hereafter will seem more and more like one.
"We've got to show character now," McCourty declared. "Just keep working, believing in our process and how we get better. We need to take advantage of next week to try to get a win. We have opportunities to play well, we just haven't been able to take advantage of them."