DETROIT - It wasn’t exactly the start they were looking for.
But the finish turned out just fine.
Despite emphasizing throughout their short week of preparation, and even on the field before yesterday’s game, that they had to come out of the gate strong, the Patriots ... were flat. Yet bolstered by Tom Brady’s passionate halftime exhortation that they should play the second 30 minutes as the best 30 minutes of their football lives, the Patriots produced a strong showing and put away the pesky Detroit Lions, 45-24.
“Apparently we just woke up,” tight end Alge Crumpler said of the Patriots’ turnaround. “We got after it a little bit in pregame warm-ups, just to let everybody know it’s time to play ball, and for some reason we just didn’t play well early. That’s a disappointment. But we put up 35 points in the second half, that’s damn good football.”
The Patriots (9-2) trailed at halftime, 17-10. New England looked to be on its heels defensively, while the Lions’ defensive line, known as an aggressive group, was getting the better of their battles.
“You want to come out and play 60 minutes,” rookie Devin McCourty said. “Once we got in here at halftime, we knew we only had 30 minutes left and that’s when Tom said, `Just focus on playing 30 minutes of great football.”’
Despite The Franchise’s locker-room speech, it took The Rookie to right the ship. New England got the ball to start the half, but after a failed flea-flicker and two more incompletions, it was punting again.
On first down from the 28, Lions quarterback Shaun Hill looked deep for Calvin Johnson, who was being covered by McCourty. The 5-foot-10-inch McCourty ran stride for stride with the 6-5 Johnson, and stepped in front of him just as the ball was coming in, then returned it 23 yards to the Lions’ 26.
“I was just trying to be physical at the line and, once he released, I just looked for the ball,” McCourty said. “I knew he was trying to go deep and I just tried to honestly beat him to the ball - I knew if he got the jump with me he would probably win that battle.”
Four plays later, from 5 yards out, Wes Welker gave the extra effort at the left sideline, stretching the ball over the goal line to tie the game at 17.
“That [interception] was a big play and really kind of swung the game a little bit, with giving us the field position and putting us back where we could be on even par with Detroit, instead of chasing them all the time like we were in the first half,” coach Bill Belichick said.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz watched as his team slowly dissolved over the remainder of the game.
“The interception, and then our defense’s failure to hold them to a field goal attempt there - that’s our defense’s job,” Schwartz said. “It’s our offense’s job not to turn the ball over. We didn’t get that done.”
Detroit scored again on the ensuing possession, going 48 yards in nine plays, but was shut out the rest of the way.
The legend of Deion Branch grew larger on the next possession when the wideout caught a long pass on third and 2 and turned it into the season’s longest play from scrimmage, a 79-yard touchdown. Branch caught the ball at the Lions’ 40 and then twice deked Alphonso Smith. The cornerback made one last attempt to stop Branch near the goal line, but he flicked Smith aside.
“[Branch] threw his hand up and I laid it out there for him,” Brady said. “He made a great run after the catch. Certainly it’s not how we drew it up, but it’s just a great play by a great player.”
A missed field goal - Kyle Arrington got a piece of Dave Rayner’s 46-yard attempt - gave the Patriots the ball back at their 36 with one minute to play in the third quarter. After three plays and a defensive penalty, the Patriots were facing second and 2 from the Lions’ 22. Brady found Branch down the left seam for the go-ahead score 1:15 into the fourth quarter and kept things moving in the right direction for New England.
“I think it’s not that we weren’t focused in the first half, we just weren’t ... you gotta be right on edge in this game and no matter who you’re playing, you have to be ready to go, perfect with your emotions,” McCourty said. “We were a little off and I think in the second half we came out with a better focus, ready to go.”
New England had just four first-half possessions. Its first drive started well enough, with a 27-yard catch and run by Crumpler, but died out after rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh sacked Brady, the first of at least three hits the quarterback took in the opening half.
New England’s second drive netted the game’s first points on a 19-yard field goal. Following the Lions’ 11-play scoring drive, the Patriots’ third possession was over nearly before it began. Suh dropped BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a 3-yard loss after making short work of Sebastian Vollmer, and Brady was drilled by Kyle Vanden Bosch on second down as he was throwing for Danny Woodhead. (Woodhead’s 14-yard pickup was negated by a chop-block penalty on Logan Mankins.)
New England went down, 14-3, after the Lions’ 13-play drive, during which they converted a fourth and short near the goal line and scored a play later. But the visitors, playing their third game in 12 days, responded with their own long drive.
The touchdown came courtesy of Green-Ellis, who took a delayed handoff and bulled his way through the middle of the line for 15 yards, pushing Smith back over the goal line.
The 39 seconds remaining were enough for Detroit to put a field goal on the board as the first half expired, and the Lions looked like they might avoid their seventh straight Thanksgiving loss as they went into the break with a touchdown lead.
In the fourth quarter, Welker and Green-Ellis each scored their second TDs as New England improved to 2-1 against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
“I love the Thanksgiving game!” a smiling Rob Gronkowski said. “It was a great win. We came out second half ready to go. Everyone played great in the second half, which helped us out a lot and opened up the game and we came out and we hit what we had to do, did what the coaches coach us on, and came out with a win.”
Belichick gave the players a four-day weekend. When they return, they will begin preparations for their Monday night showdown with the Jets.