The Detroit Lions would have had their grand return to football this week if not for COVID-19 leading to the cancelling of preseason. Detroit would have faced off against their ultimate frenemy New England Patriots, a team they have modeled their own franchise around hoping to replicate their success. It would not have been a very exciting bout, usually the teams’ starters sit out the opening preseason game, but it would have at least been football.
While we have nothing new to watch and write about this week, we can always look into the past. The Patriots and Lions have played a few great games in the past, including a recent classic that we will be taking a look at today.
The Matt Patricia era got off to a disastrous start. Detroit was crushed by the New York Jets to open the season—a game we will get around to later this month—and then came up short against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2 after an incredibly sloppy performance. The Lions were 0-2, the secondary looked awful, and quarterback Matthew Stafford had played two of the worst games of his career. An already struggling team now had to take on a juggernaut on “Sunday Night Football.”
We all know how great the New England Patriots are. They entered the 2018 season having played in three of the last four Super Bowls and won two of them. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were coming to Ford Field angry and motivated after falling to Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars a week before.
Vegas had the Patriots winning by 7, but it would be a tall task to expect the Lions to keep it within a possession.
The game started with a bad omen for Detroit. Patriots wide receiver turned running back Cordarrelle Patterson returned the opening kick off 45 yards to the New England 42-yard line.
Detroit’s defense held strong early on, though. It took over 26 minutes of game time for the Patriots to record a single first down. New England’s first three drives were three and outs, and the Lions struggling defense came up huge in the early stages of the game.
While the defense was shutting down everything the Patriots threw at them, the Lions offense was working as well. Running back LeGarrette Blount got the start, and while he played well, especially on the opening possession, it was rookie Kerryon Johnson who really became the star of the show. The running back was playing in his third career game and was shining under the bright lights of prime time.
After a Matt Prater field goal on the opening drive put Detroit on the board, they took a double-digit lead on the second drive after Matthew Stafford found Kenny Golladay for a 4-yard touchdown pass.
Detroit’s first two scoring drives were methodical and precise. There were not any big plays, but the team was efficient and managed to keep the chains moving. The field goal drive was 12 plays, 64 yards and saw the Lions going from their own 14 to the Patriots 21-yard line. The touchdown drive started at the Detroit 40, and it took 10 plays for the team to travel 60 yards for a score.
The Lions would score again on their third drive, with yet another long, methodical drive. 14 plays, 71 yards, and a 25-yard Prater field goal gave Detroit a 13-0 lead in the second quarter.
New England’s offense finally put a drive together right at the end of the first half. Brady strung together a few completions and tight end Rob Gronkowski started to get involved. Detroit’s defense did not entirely let up, though. A crucial third down stop in their own territory held the Patriots to a field goal.
Detroit went into the half up 13-3, set to get the ball first in the second half.
Disaster struck early for Stafford, though. Ja’Whaun Bentley undercut a deep third down pass on the third play of the second half, intercepting Stafford to get the Patriots back in the game.
New England would start the ensuing possession near midfield. A few runs by rookie running back Sony Michel helped get the Patriots downfield. Brady finally got his Patriots into the end zone with a 10-yard pass to running back James White.
Safety Quandre Diggs covered White well on a wheel route, and there was not much more he could do on the play. Brady threw a perfectly placed ball right over Diggs and in a place where only his guy could get it.
Suddenly, momentum had shifted. While Detroit still held a slim 13-10 lead, their margin had nearly entirely evaporated within a span of five minutes. Despite dominating the game thus far, it all still felt like it was on a knife’s edge.
It did not take very long for the Lions to quickly re-extend their lead. Stafford completed all six of his pass attempts, leading a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended in this deep touchdown pass to Marvin Jones Jr.
Detroit extended their lead back to 10. While they still had work to do to close the game out, the defense just had to hold strong for less than 20 minutes of game time. The Lions offense was still churning along as well, riding Johnson in a time-of-possession based game plan that wasted as much time as possible, limiting Brady’s time on the field. By the end of the game, the Lions offense will have controlled the ball for just under 40 minutes, doubling the possession time of their opponents.
New England’s would get four more cracks at it. Michel would rush for a first down on the first of the three, but the Lions defense would then stall the Patriots and get the ball back.
The Patriots went three and out on their next drive, and the final play of that drive highlighted the unit that stepped up most for Detroit, the secondary. After two dismal performances to start the season, they finally stepped up. Detroit’s defense does not invest much into their pass rush, and that continued on this day. This makes the pass defense almost entirely reliant on the secondary.
Brady played one of the worst games of his career that night, and credit for that feat goes to the secondary led by Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson. New England was without top receiver Brandin Cooks, making that job a little easier for them, but still, they absolutely locked down a receiving corps that includes a future Hall of Famer in Gronkowski.
On that third down, Brady could not find anything. He danced around the pocket seemingly forever. He bailed out, trying to find another angle of attack on a scramble drill. Nothing opened up for the quarterback, though, and Eli Harold finally chased him down for crucial sack, snuffing out another late opportunity for the Patriots.
Slay would get his time to shine on the next possession. A deep third down pass from Brady had a little too much air underneath it. It floated in the air for too long and ended up behind receiver Phillip Dorsett. Dorsett appears to have lost it in the air, while Slay came back to intercept it, putting the Patriots on life support.
From then on, the Lions just needed to hold on to the ball, something they had done incredibly well up to that point. While the game was all but finished, there was another thing Lions fans had their eyes on: Johnson’s rushing total.
A Detroit Lions rusher had not topped the 100-yard mark in a single game in over four years. It was a stat all fans were familiar with. Commentators could not go a broadcast without mentioning it multiple times. It looked like today could finally be the day.
Entering the drive that started with less than eight minutes, Johnson had carried the ball 14 times for 87 yards. Stafford handed the ball off to Johnson on the first play, where he took his 15th carry of the day for four yards, bumping his total to 91. Then on a third and 18, Johnson got his 16th and final carry of the day — and it is one all Lions fans will remember.
A running back draw went for 10 yards, eclipsing the 100-yard mark. While he did not get the first down, he finally broke the seal. The rookie finished the day with an impressive 101 yards on 16 carries. He would repeat the feat again a few weeks later against the Miami Dolphins. He would eclipse the 100-yard mark again in 2020 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots last real chance ended in four plays. Brady threw incompletions on third and fourth down. Detroit got the ball back, Prater knocked in another field goal, and the Lions would win the game 26-10.
Patricia had earned the first win of his head coaching career, and it came against a team he coached in the Super Bowl only a few months earlier. It also was a game the team won because of the identity he instilled in them. A great defensive performance, supported by a run-heavy possession based offense. After four long years without a 100-yard rusher, Patricia snapped the Lions streak in only three games.
While this could have been a turning point for the Lions season, it failed to really jump start anything. They would lose a week later to the Dallas Cowboys. A two-game win streak would get them to an even 3-3, but then they closed the season losing seven of their last 10 games and missed the playoffs at 6-10.
This did prove to be a turning point for the Patriots, though. New England would rattle off six straight wins after this loss. They won the AFC East with an 11-5 record, and inevitably won Super Bowl LIII over the Los Angeles Rams.