It’s a battle of teacher vs student. And neither one is especially pleased at the moment.
The New England Patriots lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, 31-20. But at least the defending AFC champs are 1-1, and their iconic head coach and HOF quarterback haven’t tried to murder each other…not yet anyway.
In contrast, Bill Belichick’s protege and former Pats assistant Matt Patricia is already having his credentials questioned in Motor City. His Detroit Lions are in desperate need of a victory to avoid a 0-3 start.
NFL odds-makers are as skeptical of Detroit as the pundits are. The Lions are a (+7) consensus underdog for their match-up with the Pats on Sunday Night Football, despite playing at home.
Patricia’s debut has a lot to do with that. QB Matt Stafford and the offense were impotent while the defense struggled in a 48-17 loss to the New York Jets. The Lions showed resiliency in Week 2, but still suffered a 30-27 defeat to San Francisco.
Stafford has appeared to turn into a Jekyll and Hyde player in a new system, throwing 4 picks in the Week 1 debacle. The veteran QB did improve on the next try, going 34-of-53 for 347 yards and 3 touchdowns without throwing a pick against the 49ers. A terrible running game which has barely produced 100 yards in 2 games has made it almost impossible for Stafford to throw deep. The signal-caller was 3-of-8 with 2 interceptions on pass attempts exceeding 15 yards against the Jets, and went a mediocre 3-of-7 on 15+ yard attempts vs San Francisco.
It must come as a big surprise for Lions fans, but Patricia – a coach with a defensive background – has fielded a team that is putrid at stopping the run. In fact, the defensive unit overall has been a nightmare to watch. The Lions rank last in the NFL in opposing yards per carry (5.6) and rushing yards per game (179.5ypg). Horrendous tackling and discipline in maintaining assignments have crippled the Lions defense thus far.
One particular gut-wrenching stat for Lions’ fans is the fact that the defense has given up single running plays of 60+ yards in each of their first 2 games.
The Patriots enjoyed a decisive touchdown-win against Houston in Week 1, but suffered a massive letdown in the highly-anticipated AFC title rematch with Jacksonville, losing 31-20. New England is not a franchise that takes well to losing, and immediately made a bold move by acquiring Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon.
However, despite having Tom Brady at quarterback, it is unlikely that the troubled Gordon will come to Foxboro and set the world on fire right away.
Brady has been solid so far, throwing for 511 yards, 5 touchdowns, and completing 67.6% of his passes over 8 quarters. Tom Terrific had a strong outing against Jacksonville with 234 yards and 2 touchdowns. But the Pats couldn’t run, and Rob Gronkowski had his worst outing in a while.
Neither was New England able to stop Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville passing game. The much-maligned QB passed for 377 yards and 4 touchdowns in one of the most dynamic performances of his young career. The Pats’ defense failed to generate any pressure and finished the contest without a sack. It doesn’t help that defensive end Trey Flowers has been knocked out of the active roster with a concussion. The same happened to safety Patrick Chung.
Can the Detroit secondary hold up against Tom Brady? Perhaps, especially if New England can’t run the football. Gordon gives Brady another deep threat down the field, but Gronkowski isn’t playing like his usual scary-dominant self, and Julian Edelman is suspended. CB Darius Slay is potentially out with a concussion and his absence would make things extremely difficult for Detroit if Brady audibles his way into 40-50 pass attempts. From what we’ve seen in the past, much will come down to play-calling and the Patriot offense clicking (or not clicking) as a unit.
The battle in the trenches will also play a huge role, especially in the passing game. The Pats defense was plowed-over and through by Jacksonville. The Lions won’t be able to attack the celebrated visitors at their weakest if they can’t throw any good blocks up the middle and get the running backs going. But most NFL teams can run up the middle a little bit if they set their minds to it. It takes patience and repetition. Stafford is good enough on 3rd down that Patricia can afford to try to run the egg, which tends to pay off in the 4th quarter if even in small ways.
There are rarely any touchdown-favorites in the league who are looking as sick as the New England Patriots right now. Many of their problems vis-a-vis the 2018-19 season are decidedly short-term – Belichick is an OL line coaching genius and not too shabby with the front-7 either. Star performers will find their strides, others will return to the roster. But for now, a road game against a highly-motivated team is a tough chore for the NFL Athletes from Boston.
I’m liking the Lions on the spread, which is being offered at (+7 ½) at many markets. The extra ½ is worth a couple of units.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.