Thanksgiving in Detroit can be a whole new ballgame
Game Preview from Patriots Football Weekly
Back in March and April before the NFL draft took place, Detroit's braintrust - team president Matt Millen and head coach Marty Mornhinweg - weighed their options and wondered which direction they'd go with the third overall pick. They listened to any and all potential trade suitors and actively shopped the pick to anyone interested. When they didn't get the package they were hoping for, they reluctantly decided to exercise the pick themselves and took Oregon's Joey Harrington, a Heisman Trophy finalist the previous year.
It wasn't that they didn't feel Harrington was worthy of such a high selection. They simply felt with young second-year man Mike McMahon already in the fold and the team in need of so much more than just a quality quarterback, trading down for multiple picks was the way to go.
After settling for Plan B, the Lions were forced to scrap another course of action early in the season after being blown out in Weeks One and Two. Mornhinweg hoped to ease Harrington along slowly, not wanting to destroy the youngster's confidence with such an inexperienced team around him. But McMahon, himself just slightly less green than Harrington, couldn't get the Lions offense in gear and the rookie performed well in mop-up duty, forcing the head coach's hand.
Just three weeks into the season the quarterback the Lions didn't necessarily want was thrust into the starting role. And two months later the kid has graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and taken the city by storm. According to SI, with the possible exception of hometown rapper Eminem, no one is hotter right now in Motown.
Harrington is exactly what Lions fans have been waiting decades for: a charismatic quarterback with the ability to make a difference. The franchise hasn't had one that fit that category since Bobby Layne back in the '50s and Harrington has been the embodiment of hope for the beleaguered fans.
Statistically speaking, Harrington's performance has been less than stellar. He's completing less than 50 percent of his passes and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, but with the exception of a 40-14 loss at Lambeau against the mighty Packers, he's given his team a chance to win every game he's played. He won three of the first six games he started and lost the others by a touchdown each.
Like his counterpart on Thanksgiving, Tom Brady, Harrington has been at his best late in games. He led the Lions on a clutch field goal drive to beat the Cowboys in the waning seconds on Nov. 3 and led two late drives in a win over the Bears two weeks earlier. And he's making his teammates better, especially the offensive line. McMahon was sacked nine times in 57 pass attempts in the first two weeks. Harrington has gone down just five times in 282 attempts since.
Running back James Stewart is enjoying his finest season, averaging almost 5 yards per carry. He's also enjoyed Harrington's presence by placing second on the team's receptions list behind only Az-Zahir Hakim.
Hakim, who the Lions doled out big money to as a free agent in the offseason, has been a disappointment. In fact, all of the Lions receivers have played poorly, especially lately. Mornhinweg singled out that group - which includes Hakim, Bill Schroeder, Germane Crowell and tight end Mikhael Ricks - for its poor play at Green Bay, citing several dropped passes, two of which led to interceptions. While this group isn't among the league's most talented, it is capable of better play than they've shown.
Defensively, the Lions have been OK up front but have struggled in the secondary. Veterans Robert Porcher, Luther Eliss and Chris Caiborne spearhead a front seven that isn't easy to run against. The Lions entered Week 12 ranked third in the NFC in average yards allowed per rush attempt.
The problem for the Lions has been in coverage where teams have exploited the cornerback tandem of rookie Chris Cash and veteran Todd Lyght. Safeties Brian Walker and Corey Harris are adequate with veteran Eric Davis serving as the nickel back. Detroit entered last week ranked 29th in the NFL in net passing yards allowed and their red zone defense has been one of the few in the league worse than the Patriots.
Brady and the passing game should have success against this group provided the offensive line keeps Porcher, Claiborne and pass rushing linebacker Donte Curry from applying too much pressure. Look for the Patriots to pass first and then ride Antowain Smith in the second half as they attempt to melt the clock and protect the lead.
The Lions have been competitive in nearly every game under Harrington and playing on Thanksgiving virtually assures the Patriots of a first-rate effort. But the same from New England should be enough for a Patriots victory, even on Thanksgiving in Detroit.