By Tom E. Curran
FOXBORO - Wait, didn't I just write one of these things for the Colts' game? Everything's so compressed, I'm all confused. The Patriots have lost twice this season. The first was on the road at New York when they still weren't fully formed. The other? In Cleveland when they failed to match the intensity of the Browns. That game followed a stretch of five wins, four against very talented teams. Now the Patriots have this Thanksgiving Day game thrown in the mix between games against the Steelers, Colts and Jets. Scary. Scaaaarrrrry.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
1. Grind If You Want. The past two weeks, the Patriots have set up their rushing attack by going airborne early. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's riding a hot streak with his game plans, so it will be interesting if he sticks to the script of throwing in the first half and running in the second. The Lions allow 130 yards per game on the ground, 26th in the league. Stephen Neal's been banged up at right guard so that may put Dan Connolly in against powerful rookie Ndomakung Suh. That's a matchup to watch.
2. Throw The First Punch. It's absolutely vital for the Patriots to start hot on Thursday. As we saw against Cleveland and have in any mismatch between talented teams and have-nots, the longer you dangle a "W" in front of the downtrodden, the more emboldened they become. As Tom Brady told me on Tuesday, the Patriots can't afford to sputter in the early going.
3. Beware The Gunther. Head coach Jim Schwartz is a defensive guy so he's involved in game-planning and scheming there but the defensive coordinator is Gunther Cunningham. The longtime Chiefs head coach and assistant has a very aggressive style and with Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Julian Peterson, there's three players who can get after the quarterback. The Lions also have two talented playmakers in their secondary, safety Louis Delmas and corner Alphonso Smith (5 picks).
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
1. Tighten The Screws. The Colts had success last week finding tight ends Blair White and Jacob Tamme. The Lions have two talented tight ends of their own - Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. Admittedly, Shaun Hill - the Lions likely starter at quarterback - isn't a carbon copy of Peyton Manning, but there are plays to be made to the tight end against the Patriots defense and look for the Lions to probe that.
2. Stay On Megatron. The Lions' biggest offensive threat is Calvin Johnson. And nobody else is really in second. The 6-foot-4 wide receiver is very similar to Brandon Marshall. Strong. Powerfully built. Works inside or out. Can jump. Very fast. He's got 10 touchdowns this year which is impressive because everyone knows he's getting the ball. And he lines up everywhere so he's not just the responsibility of one corner or another, he is the responsibility of the entire defense.
3. Toss The Run. Week after week, the Patriots run defense gets better. Save for the very big aberration against Cleveland and Peyton Hillis, the Pats have been lockdown against the run game. The Lions enter this game with their two top backs - rookie Jahvid Best and veteran Kevin Smith - nursing injuries. The Lions may want to just bag the run altogether and take their chances trying to outgun the sometimes permissive Patriots pass defense.
DOESN'T SHOW UP ON THE STAT SHEET
This is pretty easy. It's a bona fide trap game (pause for eyeroll). You have Bill Belichick coaching against a motivated protege, the Pats on the road after a very emotional win. A short week of preparation. All the ingredients are there for the Lions to cook up a stunner (see what I did there with the Thanksgiving theme?). The Patriots can't let the Lions get any glimmer of hope in this one.
Patriots 31, Lions 27. Calvin Johnson has a huge day but the Patriots survive on the road and get to 9-2 and can start counting down to their AFC East showdown with the Jets.
Tom E. Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tom on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tomecurran