FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was a beautiful day in New England on Sunday. A crisp, cool breeze rustled through the leaves just starting to change colors in the bucolic countryside outside Gillette Stadium.
But back in Detroit, the sky is supposedly falling for Detroit Lions fans, no matter what the forecast says. Because they lost again. Worse yet, they lost, 29-0, to the Patriots and to ex-coach Matt Patricia and to a third-string rookie quarterback making his first career start.
It wasn’t the kind of shootout loss — aka last week’s 48-45 defeat to the Seattle Seahawks — that gives everyone whiplash and a sense that it could have gone either way. It was the kind of loss that darkens everyone’s mood, blackens our hearts and makes us wonder if Dan Campbell is indeed the man for the job.
“I believe we hit rock bottom,” is the quote from Campbell that will endure from this game.
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But let’s not forget two things. First, Campbell is a bit prone to hyperbole, if you recall all his talk about kneecaps and dragging teams out to the ocean and drowning them. Second, and I know you don’t want to hear this, but it wasn’t as bad as the final score indicates.
Besides the hyperbole, Campbell tends to be a bit emotional after games, especially after losses. He walks up to the lectern with the weight of the world after a loss and willingly carries the burden for the entire team. The postgame news conference acts a form of contrition for Campbell.
“It was the worst of the season overall as a team,” he said. “And, you know, that falls on me. You can’t play that way and — unless your head coach doesn’t have them ready. So that’s 100% on me.”
I give Campbell credit for wanting to take the blame. But he’s not at fault for Jared Goff not stepping up his game, or offensive coordinator Ben Johnson not adjusting better to Bill Belichick’s tricky defensive fronts, or not having a kicker he can trust or having a secondary that looked like a MASH unit.
In fact, right after he accepted full blame for the team’s first shutout since the second-to-last game of Patricia’s tenure, in which former XFL quarterback P.J. Walker outdueled another first-round draft pick named Matthew Stafford, Campbell tried to give those gloomy clouds hanging over his team and its city a silver lining.
“It’s hard to say that when you look at the score today, but we got better defensively,” he said. “I mean … we played better today than we’ve played. Now, is it good enough? No. But we did play better. And offensively, we’re better than what we just put out there on tape.
“So, yeah, it’s bad. But as a total team here, it’s just 29-nothing. So to this point in the season, it’s as bad as it’s gotten.”
OK, let’s just take a breath for a second. Yes, there wasn’t much good from a game that dropped the Lions to 1-4. But painting a shutout as the nadir of awfulness is convenient but not accurate; the Lions easily could have kicked two field goals in the fourth quarter that would have done nothing more than avoid the shutout and make the final score a tiny bit more respectable.
And Campbell is right about the defense, which held the Patriots to four field goals through three quarters and only allowed one touchdown — at the end of the third quarter when the Lions were dealing with so many injuries that the Patriots’ only offensive touchdown occurred when backup cornerback Chase Lucas was pressed into playing safety.
So the Lions’ defense, which allowed five touchdowns and two field goals by the Seahawks’ offense last week at Ford Field, went on the road and allowed one touchdown and four field goals to the Patriots’ offense. That’s a big improvement in one week, well off the NFL-worst average of 35.3 points allowed the Lions entered the game with.
And while Zappe is a rookie and got plenty of help from a simple gameplan and plenty of run support, the Patriots’ offense only totaled 364 yards and converted 33% of their third downs — same as the Lions. Last week, Geno Smith led the Seahawks’ offense to 555 yards and a 75% efficiency on third down.
The Lions did go 0-for-6 on fourth down, but that was probably more a function of not trusting new kicker Michael Badgley.
My biggest disappointment came with Jared Goff, who had his worst game of the season and who, according to Campbell, could never get in rhythm or comfortable. It’s hard to say exactly why, but Bill Belichick’s schematic creativity certainly had plenty to do with it.
If anything, this game shows what the ceiling is for Goff and, perhaps, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. When they go up against a defensive maestro, can they match that genius and win the chess match?
I asked Goff if getting shut out after coming into the game leading the NFL in total offense and points shook his confidence.
“No, no,” he said. “I think it’s a really good defense. And they had a really good plan for us. I mean, we moved the ball. I mean, we weren’t just, like, you know, sputtering out of drives. We moved the ball, we just didn’t finish any drives.
“You know, we didn’t convert on our fourth downs and that’s kind of the difference today. And if we convert on all the fourth downs, you know, maybe we’re able to score some points.”
Of the Lions’ five games, this was obviously their worst offensive performance. But are you really worried that the NFL’s top offense through four games isn’t going to bounce back after having the bye week to get healthier?
That’s something Campbell understands as a former player: Health matters and there are ebbs and flows to an NFL season, which can contain all kinds of weather.
“I’ve been in this league too long as a player and a coach,” he said, “and I’ve seen teams that have started out rocky and it’s doom and gloom, and all of a sudden they win one and then they win the next one and then they win the next one.”
A winning streak always sounds nice. It’s something the team and its fans haven’t experienced since consecutive wins over the Jaguars and Falcons in October 2020. It was sunny back then before things turned real gloomy. Losing to the Patriots on Sunday wasn’t rock bottom, no matter what an emotional coach says, and the sky isn’t falling. It’s far too early in the season, and in Campbell’s tenure, to make such dire forecasts.