DETROIT — As badly as the Patriots were getting outplayed, as dominant as the Lions had been Sunday night, opportunity came knocking for New England anyway. When a promising second-half drive by Detroit stalled into a field goal, there was Tom Brady, only two scores down and nearly the entirety of the fourth quarter yet to play. There was the Patriots quarterback, taking over at his 21-yard line, ready to steal victory from the jaws of defeat.
Brady gathered the shotgun snap. He looked long, and unleashed a beautifully arcing pass down the field.
To no one.
Not a Patriot to be seen.
“We didn’t have a receiver in the area where we threw the ball,” captain obvious Bill Belichick deadpanned afterward.
And so the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, beyond even the reach of the deepest Detroit defenders, into football no man’s land. How symbolic.
Before the ball would be snapped again, the officials convened on the field, Brady was flagged for intentional grounding, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was presumably apologetic for running the wrong route, and a vocal, impatient, delighted home crowd turned its volume up as loud as it had all night, chanting de-fense, de-fense in full-throated roar. Two plays later, there was Brady again, scrambling on a desperate third down, ducking for his life, and eventually, finding himself at the bottom of a Detroit heap. Smothered to the ground on the wrong end of an Eli Harold sack, Brady was slow to rise, frustration seeping through the grill of his facemask.
“Well, yeah. Yeah,” Brady repeated from his postgame podium, a 26-10 nationally televised thumping at the hands of the previously winless Lions leaving him demonstrably annoyed. Even his dark, polka-dotted tie seemed to play along with the scene, hanging awkwardly down the front of his striped shirt, leaving the usually impeccably attired quarterback looking slightly askew. Not unlike his team, which fell to 1-2, which lost its second consecutive game, which counts its only win against the still-winless Texans, which saw Brady drop his first-ever career starts (in 19 years) to both the Lions and last week’s Jaguars.
“It’s just overall execution, not being on the same page,” Brady said of that particularly emblematic miscue. “Those things shouldn’t happen. This is pro football.”
Dropping the word “panic’’ into a sports conversation should be done with caution, especially in Week 3 of a 17-week NFL schedule, especially around a team that was in the Super Bowl only a season ago, especially for a roster minus two starting defenders in Patrick Chung and Trey Flowers, especially for an offense missing one starting wide receiver in Julian Edelman and awaiting the debut of another in Josh Gordon. But these are the Patriots, where a sense of expected greatness among home fans has been matched only by the gleeful anticipation of an inevitable fall by the rest of the NFL world. When any crack starts to show, when any fissure threatens to break open, who can’t help but wonder if it’s the beginning of the end?
“I don’t think anybody clinched a playoff spot today. I don’t think anybody was eliminated today,” Belichick clipped when asked about his team’s record.
Sorry coach, but in this case, panic fits. The Patriots were that bad Sunday night. They were down, 10-0, before they seemingly blinked, despite spending a week declaring a renewed sense of urgency. They were down, 13-3, at halftime, at which point they were outgained 231 yards to 70, outplayed 17 first downs to 3, outcoached one winning replay review to none, out-executed 38 offensive plays to 19, out-averaged 6.1 yards per play to 3.7. They were utterly dominated up front, the defense couldn’t get off the field, and the receivers couldn’t get open (among 10 targets to receivers Chris Hogan, Patterson, and Philip Dorsett on the night, only four completions were made, for a total of 43 yards).
“I think they clearly outplayed us and outcoached us today. We just all have to do a better job,” Belichick said, not long after congratulating his former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia at midfield. This was Patricia’s first win since leaving the Patriots over the offseason to take over the Lions.
“We couldn’t execute anything,” Belichick said. “We didn’t execute very well.”
They didn’t do anything very well, leaving a postgame scene filled with hushed tones and somber faces, leaving these players with nothing but more vows to get better.
“We got to show character now, just keep working, believe in our process and how we get better,” Devin McCourty said. “We just didn’t play well enough, run game, first down, third down, anything. We’ve said it before when we’ve been 10-0, that doesn’t win you anything. And 1-2 doesn’t put us out of anything.”
That much is certainly true, but performances like Sunday’s don’t win you anything either. And that’s what was bothering Brady.
“The process has been the same,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk about it in practice. We’re going through it, watching the film, correcting stuff. It’s just not getting done on the field. And we got to get it corrected soon.”
Asked if he believes the problems are, indeed, correctable, Brady offered no ringing endorsement.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I’m not going to make predictions. It’s about hard work. It’s about being disciplined. We all got to get back to work, look at ourselves, and figure out what we can do to help.”