The Patriots are a long way from that 41-14 late September blowout at the hands of the Chiefs. The offensive line has gelled, Tom Brady is back to being, well, Tom Brady, Jonas Gray has emerged as a legit threat in the backfield, and the defense has put the clamps on some pretty good opponents, including Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck.
But the tasks don't get any easier down the home stretch as New England tries to hold onto one of the top two spots in the AFC and the first-round bye that comes with it. Next up: The Lions. Specifically, wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia on Johnson: “You have both sides of the coin with him,” Patricia said, via ESPN.com. “He’s a big, physical, strong player that is good if you are up there on him and even if you are off of him. So, it’s a big challenge for us to see if we can stop that from happening in either situation. I don’t think there is one definitive answer to say this is how you play this guy because I think he has certainly proved that if you are on him, off him, you double him, three guys on him, guys over the top, guys underneath, I think he has been extremely productive in all those situations.”
Exacerbating matters: Golden Tate, who was signed this offseason, lines up opposite Johnson and he's having a career year. "Golden Tate is an extremely explosive player,” Patricia said. “Great run after catch or run with the ball in his hands whether it is a reverse-type play or short pass or a deep pass where he can now get the ball in his hands and make things happen in open space. So certainly tackling is an issue and covering him.”
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Suh: "He’s an extremely disruptive player in any alignment that they put him in,” he said. “He’s a great football player. He plays the run well, creates a lot of problems in pass protection. He penetrates. He can handle double-teams and beat single blocks and moves with the other defensive linemen very well.”
And like Johnson and Tate, the Lions' defensive line has plenty of playmakers, which means the Pats can't just focus in on Suh.
“(Suh) definitely creates some opportunities for some other guys in there,” coach Bill Belichick said. “But that’s a good defense with guys like (Ziggy) Ansah and (Jason) Jones, and (C.J.) Mosley has done a good job for (Nick) Fairley. All those guys are hard to handle -- (George) Johnson -- they roll them all through there.
“They do a good job with their pressure defenses, bringing linebackers and secondary guys. They do enough to keep you off balance and there’s enough movement up front that you can’t really count on everybody being right where they are when the ball will snap. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not."
The Patriots host the Lions this Sunday. Kickoff is at 1 p.m. ET.