DETROIT - They were dressed in their red "throwback" uniforms, and they played like throwback Patriots - circa 2001.
The defense made plays - including three interceptions of Joey Harrington - the offense was able to run the final 9:46 off the clock with a game-icing drive, and the Patriots went home last night looking at four days of leisure following a 20-12 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
The victory concluded a stretch of five games in 25 days for the Patriots, who went 4-1 in that time to improve to 7-5 and who stand a half-game behind the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East lead. Some may have expected more of a thumping of the hapless Lions, but if Harrington had not made so many ill-advised throws - especially one that Tedy Bruschi picked off and returned 27 yards for a score to give the Patriots a 10-0 first-quarter lead - this might have been an even more competitive game.
There were other big individual efforts: interceptions by Bobby Hamilton and Willie McGinest; a 10-catch, 111-yard day by Troy Brown; and Tom Brady's efficient 18-for-30, 210-yard, no-touchdowns-but-only-one-interception day. And Antowain Smith gained 80 very effective yards on 25 carries, as the Patriots ran more times than they threw (38-30).
In the final quarter of the season, the Patriots play three home games and just one on the road (at Tennessee Dec. 16).
"We wanted to put ourselves in position to play meaningful games in December, and now we are," said Bruschi.
"This was such a big boost for our confidence overall," said left tackle Matt Light. "We were able to hold the ball for the final whatever minutes, and overall it was a great experience. We had a lot of missed opportunities in the first half, and we talked about that at the half and came out to finish the job, and it's sweet to be able to finish it like we did."
The Patriots finished it with a touch of class: Brady taking a knee at the Lions' 1-yard line with 31 seconds remaining.
The final drive started at the Patriots' 19-yard line after Jason Hanson hit his fourth field goal of the game, from 46 yards with 9:50 to play.
The Patriots made six first downs, converted four third downs, and ran 17 plays. Third and 12 from his 33, Brady hits Daniel Graham for 16 yards. Third and 12 from the Detroit 41, Brady hits Brown on the right sideline for 17 yards. Third and 7 from the 21, Brady runs up the middle for 8 yards. Third and 2 from the 5 with 1:18 remaining, Smith runs it to the 1. End of game.
"It was a like a slow death," said Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg.
By the third quarter, the Diamond Vision twice had shown patrons taking a snooze. That was typical of a very sedate home crowd, one that did not even respond to the Detroit defensive line men's cry for noise on the final drive. Instead, the only noise was a scattering of boos.
"The crowd was never a factor," said Patriots guard (and former Lion) Mike Compton. "We wanted to take them out of the game, and we got it so we didn't have to deal with that."
While the offensive line played stoutly throughout, the defense was opportunistic and executed Romeo Crennel's game plan to perfection. Facing a young quarterback, said Crennel, "We tried to mix things up on him a little bit. He's a young quarterback going through some growing pains, and we were fortunate to get some turnovers."
After the Patriots went 62 yards on 10 plays on their opening drive for Adam Vinatieri's 31-yard field goal, Bruschi picked off Harrington on a slant pass intended for Larry Foster.
Crennel said the Patriots have been practicing that play from the start of training camp, and the circumstances were perfect.
"We had a pressure called," said Crennel. "I believe the protection went to Bruschi, and he saw he wasn't going to have a chance to go against the guard that was coming at him, and so he just kind of dropped out of there, and the ball happened to be there."
"The ball just kind of came to me in that situation, and I just had to catch it," said Bruschi. "A lot of things have to happen for that to work. We have to adjust to the formation correctly, you have to read the play of the offensive and defensive lines, and if the slant comes your way, you gotta make the play. Three or four things had to happen, and they happened in a matter of one second, less than that. They did, and I was able to pick it off and take it to the house."
The Lions were able to move the ball - they had 292 yards on the day - but all they could put on the board in the first quarter was a 23-yard Hanson field goal with eight seconds remaining after a 77-yard, 12-play drive.
Detroit blew a huge opportunity in the second quarter after middle linebacker Chris Claiborne blocked a Ken Walter punt, giving the Lions the ball at the Patriots' 36. James Stewart, who was later injured, ran for a 21-yard gain to the 15, and all systems were go for Detroit. But Harrington was flushed out of the pocket by Anthony Pleasant, threw off-balance, and McGinest made a terrific play to intercept the pass.
The Patriots scored their second touchdown with 2:29 remaining in the half, a 1-yard run by Smith that was set up by another interception. Harrington made a horrible throw into a sea of Patriots linemen, and it was grabbed by Hamilton, who had never intercepted a pass in his career. Hamilton said the linemen had practiced catching the football this week and were prepared if something like this happened. He caught the ball at the Lions' 19, and Kevin Faulk brought it to the doorstep with a 17-yard reception.
"I was watching Harrington's eyes," said Hamilton, "and then I saw the back and I went over to where he was and I stepped in front of him. I don't know who tripped me or knocked me over, but I said, `I'm just going to get up and run.' "
The Lions were able to get another Hanson field goal (45 yards) with 41 seconds left in the half, making it 17-6. The Patriots were able to stuff the Lions, who got as far as the 17 but were pushed back to the 27 by a holding call.
The Lions got it as close as 8 points on Hanson's 39-yard field goal with 4:16 remaining in the third quarter, a drive that ate up almost six minutes and yielded only 3 points. During the drive, the Patriots challenged a 16-yard Mikhael Ricks sideline reception to the New England 40, and it was reversed when the replay showed his hand hit out of bounds before his knee came down inbounds.
The Patriots got their final 3 points on the subsequent series, which began late in the third quarter and ate up another 5:55. They made four first downs as the Lions' defense simply couldn't stop the Patriots when it counted most. The big plays were Brady's throw to Brown for 24 yards on third and 10 and Smith's gain of 10 yards on a third and 10.
The Patriots settled for a 29-yard field goal by Vinatieri to make it 20-9, then held on in a game they always seemed to control but couldn't put away until they held the ball for most of the fourth quarter.
"As a unit, we said, `OK, we've got to keep the ball and run out the clock. We can't let them get the ball and get their two-minute offense going,' " said Light.
In the end, they indeed played "throwback" football. Throwback to about a year ago.