Niyo: Lions hit ‘rock bottom’; Patriots, Patricia have their way on offense

Detroit News

Foxborough, Mass. – So here’s a dirty little secret about the Patriot Way.

More often than not, Bill Belichick’s genius can be distilled to this simple coaching point: Limit your mistakes, and let your opponents beat themselves.

And here at Gillette Stadium, on a crispy, sunny October afternoon, the NFL schedule makers couldn’t have picked a better matchup for New England.

Here came the Detroit Lions, with their illustrious history of in-game incompetence. Here came Dan Campbell’s team, rolling into town like degenerate gamblers, banking on the league’s most forgiving defense, a new kicker that Lions fans still haven’t met and a quarterback who seems to have a bad habit involving back-breaking turnovers.

I’ll give you one guess how it all played out: Snake eyes.

“We played right into their hands,” said Jared Goff, who notably handed the Patriots a touchdown late in the first half and then never could find the end zone himself. “It was exactly how they wanted to do it, I’m sure.”

He’s sure. You’re sure. We’re all sure. And I’m sure the guy on the other sideline – the one with the pencil in his ear and a smug look on his face – got exactly what he wanted Sunday, as Matt Patricia’s former team left Foxborough looking as bad as it ever did when he was coaching in Detroit.

Sunday’s 29-0 loss to the Patriots only ranks as the 10th-worst shutout in franchise history because this is the Lions we’re talking about. But after this latest tilt in a season that already feels like it has gone bust — the Lions are reeling at 1-4 heading into their bye week — this is how Campbell was talking about it at his postgame podium.

“It was not good,” he said.

“It was the worst of the season,” he added.

And then there was this, which was the best Campbell could do in offering some hope in a situation that’s starting to feel a bit hopeless once again.

“To me, this is about as bad as it gets,” Campbell said. “Sometimes it’s gonna get bad before it’s gonna get better. And I believe we hit rock bottom, so now the only place to go is back up.”

Record don’t lie

Of course, now this is when fans of this team all shout obscenities and remind anyone who’ll listen that it can always get worse and it never seems to get better. Patricia’s teams went 5-17 in the final 22 games of his reign of terror in the Motor City; Campbell is now 4-17-1 since being hired with a promise to do better. And I don’t know how you can spin that as progress, honestly. Not in the NFL, where you are, as coaches often remind us, what your record says you are.

Yet this is how you spin your wheels, what we saw on the field Sunday. And even what we heard at the end of the game, when the Patriots fans who spent the last two decades cheering Tom Brady were practically taunting the Lions in the final minutes of this laugher, chanting “Zap-pe! Zap-pe!”

When the Lions weren’t getting punked by the Patriots’ defense, they were getting clowned by Patricia and a third-string rookie quarterback in Bailey Zappe, a fourth-round pick who was making his first career start. And don’t let the pedestrian numbers fool you: He did everything he was supposed to Sunday. He did his job, which is all you’re ever asked to do here in Foxborough, finishing 17-of-21 for 188 yards with one touchdown, one interception that wasn’t his fault, and tidy passer rating of 100.0.

Goff’s gaffes

Goff, meanwhile, finished 19-of-35 for 229 yards with two sacks and two costly turnovers – one a “greedy” throw in the red zone that was picked off, and the other a careless fourth-down fumble that Patriots safety Kyle Dugger scooped up and returned 59 yards for a score.

Of Goff’s five turnovers through five games, that’s now three that have gone the other way for touchdowns. And while he called that an “occupational hazard” of his position Sunday, he also shook his head and admitted, “In order to beat teams like that, you can’t make dumb mistakes like I did.”

You also can’t make six turnovers as a coaching staff, which is what Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson essentially did Sunday by going for it on fourth down a half-dozen times and failing to convert on any of them. That’s another ignominious NFL record, by the way. Previously, the single-game record for fourth-down futility was held by Campbell’s coaching mentor, Bill Parcells, with the 1995 Patriots, no less.

Campbell has been aggressive – and analytically sound, for the most part – with his fourth-down philosophy since Day 1 in Detroit. And to be fair, it’s clear his thinking occasionally is rooted in the reality that the Lions’ defense can’t be trusted.

But Sunday, it went to another extreme that should have Campbell and his boss, general manager Brad Holmes, kicking themselves. The Lions trotted out their third kicker in three weeks Sunday, after abruptly waiving Austin Seibert — and last week’s flop of fill-in, Dominik Eberle – and signing Michael Badgley on Friday.

Yet the “Money Badger” never even touched the football Sunday, because punter Jack Fox handled the Lions’ lone kickoff – they didn’t score, remember? – and the coaches didn’t have any faith Badgley could make a kick of 50 yards or more. So when a missed run-blocking assignment on third-and-2 from the Patriots’ 25 pushed the Lions into a fourth-and-9 from the 32, Campbell kept the offense on the field.

Then Matthew Judon came roaring past Penei Sewell off the edge, and Goff bailed out of the pocket in a panicked scramble, carrying the football like a potluck dish, and, well, you know the rest. It didn’t get better from there. It got worse.

And I think veteran linebacker Alex Anzalone probably put it best in the visitors’ locker room.

“I mean, this better be rock bottom, right?” he said.

That’s a rhetorical question, I’m assuming.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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