The stage at Gillette Stadium was set – a cloudless December day. The Lions showed up looking ready to take their beating from the now 9-3 Patriots, but when the teams took the field it seemed nobody remembered to tell the Lions that they were supposed to play the part of the pushover.
Didn't they know they'd only won two games all season?
"I wouldn't worry too much about the records. I'd just worry about the teams that are playing out there," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick in his post game press conference. "That's what I'd worry about. I think that's what they were worried about."
The Lions did more than stay in this game; they took the lead twice and extended it on three separate drives.
"We played a terrible game today, we can't keep playing like this," said cornerback Asante Samuel after the game. "We are just getting by and you can't do that. We need to play better if we want to continue to win. … We just came out dead. We just didn't come out fired up and we didn't come out pressuring them. We just didn't come out playing Patriots football. We didn't play good the whole game so we are glad that we got the victory but we have to play better."
Samuel recorded four passes defensed and his third interception in two weeks during this game. The interception came in the final minute of the first half, only a few seconds after quarterback Tom Brady and his offense finished engineering a five-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to tie the game, 10-10.
"[Samuel] made a nice play undercutting that in-route right at the end of the half and that gave us an opportunity to get some points there before the half. I thought those were big momentum points, although it didn't turn out that way because they came back and got them back in the third quarter," said Belichick. "Those turnovers are big. We got what - five of them today? Mike [Vrabel's] interceptions and a couple of fumbles there. Being able to turn the ball over, that's always important and Asante has good hands. He has good ball skills and the balls are coming to him now and that's great. He's doing a good job with it."
Mike Vrabel had a tremendous game, posting a career-high two interceptions, along with two passes defensed, a fumble recovery and eight combined tackles. Doing all that while shifting from his usual outside linebacker position to start at inside linebacker – a spot vacated by the injured Junior Seau – was enough to impress fellow linebacker Tedy Bruschi.
"I don't know if there's another player around that could really go from outside linebacker to inside linebacker like he can. Incredible football knowledge coupled with athletic ability, that's what he is. I mean outside and inside, they're two different worlds and I think he may be the only person in the league that can do that.
"To see [Vrabel] come up with those two picks, I mean he ended the game. He won the game. That's the type of player he is, and I think we can all look to his example to step up our game, ourselves."
Vrabel's second interception came just after the 2-minute warning in the fourth quarter when Lions quarterback Jon Kitna, under pressure from defensive lineman Javis Green, scrambled out of the pocket and lobbed one. Vrabel took a while to get up after being tackled on the play, though Belichick said, "I think he's probably all right." Vrabel spoke with members of the media after the game, but said he had no memory of the play that ended the Lions final drive and with it, the game.
The Patriots offense played well in the fourth quarter, after getting out to a slow start.
Tom Brady completed 27 of 38 passes for 305 yards, marking his third 300-yard game of the season. His 71.1 percent completion rate marked the first game this season in which he has completed more than 70 percent of his passes, and his leading receiver was wideout Reche Caldwell, who caught eight passes for 112 yards and averaged 14 yards per carry.
"Definitely it was closer than it should have been, but this is the NFL. Every team is good and every team is capable winning any given Sunday," said Caldwell after the game. "[Detriot] went out there and played a good game. They had a good game plan."
The Lions defense kept the Patriots on their toes, grabbing up two fumbles and intercepting a pass intended for Caldwell, but the Patriots offense countered in the fourth quarter by operating in their two-minute offense, attacking no-huddle on two separate drives.
"I think [the no-huddle's success] starts with our quarterback, making the right reads and hitting open guys like he did today," said Caldwell. "We have confidence and he has confidence in us to make the plays. I think it gives us momentum and I think that our 2-minute offense is hard to stop because we have too many weapons. You can't key on one guy. We have receivers and tight ends and running backs going out there making plays."
Brady spread the football around to five different ball carriers in the Patriots first drive of the fourth quarter. Running back Corey Dillon supplied a 2-yard touchdown run to end the drive, and receiver Troy Brown capped it off by getting open in the end zone for a 2-point conversion that tied the game.
"The two-point conversion, that was a big momentum play," said Brady. "If they make that play, I think they go to the sideline still feeling that they are up as opposed to us going to the sideline and saying it is a tie ballgame. It was a big play. We have worked on that play a bunch. It worked out really well."
With 5:57 on the clock, Brady and the offense assembled one more scoring drive with the help of their no-huddle attack. Brady connected with running back Patrick Pass and tight end Benjamin Watson – both of whom had fumbled earlier in the game – on consecutive attempts, and Dillon tied the franchise mark with a third touchdown run to end the drive.
The final score was 28-21, and many Patriots players felt like it shouldn't have been so close.
"We were just happy to get out of there with a win," said defensive end Richard Seymour after the game. "I think that's the most important thing. At this point in the season, it didn't go great, but if you look at the last two weeks, even though we didn't play great, and played sloppy at times, the bigger issue is that we got a win. If we can win those tough games and we can win the games that we didn't play as well as we would like to, at the end of the day we can look back and say, 'We didn't do all the things that we wanted to but it still put us in a good position coming down the stretch.'"
Corey Dillon scored three rushing touchdowns on Sunday, tying the team's single-game record, last achieved by Antowain Smith in 2002. Dillon's three-touchdown game marks the 19th time a Patriots player has scored three touchdowns in a game. He's now scored three or more touchdowns four times in his career, with his last three-score performance coming for the Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit on Oct. 28, 2001 (two rushing, one receiving).
With the Patriots, he has now scored 36 of his 86 career touchdowns in 39 regular-season games. Dillon's 34 rushing touchdowns rank fourth on the Patriots' all-time list (one behind Steve Grogan's third-place total of 35) and with his three touchdowns today, he passed Tony Collins (32) and Curtis Martin (32) on the team's rushing touchdown list.
His 36 total touchdowns tie him with Grogan for 11th on the team's overall touchdowns list and with his three scores Sunday, he passed Troy Brown (33 total scores) to become the team's active touchdown leader. His 10 touchdowns this season lead the team.
A 2-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter made Dillon became the 15th player in NFL history to exceed 11,000 career-rushing yards. Following that run, Dillon had recorded exactly 11,000 career yards. He finished the game with 11,004 career yards on 2,560 career carries, good for an average of 4.3 yards per carry. He has also scored 79 career-rushing touchdowns. Dillon's 11,004 career yards rank 15th on the NFL's all-time list. He needs 232 more yards to catchO.J. Simpson (11,236) for 14th place and needs 350 more yards to catch John Riggins (11,352) for 13th place.
Rosevelt Colvin posted two sacks and a quarterback hurry on Sunday. He came up with one of the biggest plays of the game when he strip-sacked Jon Kitna with six minutes left in the game and Mike Wright pounced on the loose ball to give the Patriots possession and kick-start the game-winning drive. The play came as Detroit had gained a first down three yards shy of midfield late in a 21-21 game. For Colvin, the forced fumble was his first of the season and the 11th of his eight-year career.
Quote of note:
Quarterback (and Michigan alum) Tom Brady on why Michigan should play Ohio State in the BCS Championship game - "Anyone who has seen [Michigan] play realizes it is a no-brainer. Florida is not very good. I watched that game last night and that other quarterback completed like three passes the week before. They have 18 guys out there throwing passes out there for Arkansas. … It is supposed to be the two best teams in college football. I would vote for Michigan to play Ohio State if I had a vote."
The Patriots added offensive lineman Gene Mruczkowski to their roster on Saturday, filling the spot that opened up when Junior Seau was placed on IR. Mruczkowski, 26, was originally signed by the Patriots as an undrafted rookie free agent on May 16, 2003 and has played in 17 games for the team since then. He was inactive for the first three games of the 2006 season before being released on Sept. 30, 2006. He was resigned for a brief four-day stint with the team last month, but was released prior to the Packers game in Green Bay. … Running back Laurence Maroney signaled that he wanted to be relieved after his fourth carry, leaving the field less than five minutes into the game. He did not return, though his return was announced as "Probable." It was also announced that he had "the wind knocked out of him," and after the game, coach Belichick said, "He got a little banged up there."