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November 23. 2014 10:31PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: They're making it look too easy


New England Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (50) and tackle Chris Jones (94) celebrate after Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) was sacked during the second quarter of Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The players charged out of the tunnel with the proper zeal, the stadium was packed as always, and the fans cheered whenever the situation called for applause — but Sunday afternoon there was never really any buzz at Gillette Stadium. Not at the beginning. Not as the Patriots were building their lead. And not even as the home team locked down a seventh straight win.

It was a game that featured 38 completions from Tom Brady, two touchdowns from tight end Tim Wright and two more from the newly reacquired LeGarrette Blount, an 81-yard Danny Amendola kick return, a Logan Ryan interception, four pass breakups from Darrelle Revis and nine from the team as a whole. At one point the Pats’ offense scored on three straight possessions against the league’s No. 1 defense, and meanwhile their defense kept the Lions out of the end zone altogether.

Yet the most remarkable thing about New England’s 34-9 thumping of Detroit might’ve been just how unremarkable it seemed, given how routine lopsided decisions have become for the Patriots lately. And they have come during a stretch of the schedule that was projected to be as tough as they’ve stared down in years.

“We’ve played great team ball all over, in all three phases — offense, defense and special teams,” said Revis, whose team is 9-2 and atop the AFC. “You’ve got to give credit to the opposing teams that you play, and we have respect for all of those guys. But at the same time, we’ve got a good team here. We buy into the game plan and what we need to accomplish that week, and we really dial in on what we need to focus on.”

The NFL isn’t supposed to work this way. And it typically doesn’t. Between the start of Week 8 and the finish of Week 12’s day games on Sunday afternoon, only 10 games league-wide had been decided by a margin of at least 22 points — and four of those have been authored by the Patriots over the course of their last four games.

In that span the Pats have now outscored their opponents 170-73. Over the last seven contests, New England has faced four teams that came into Sunday with at least a share of the lead in their division, and in those contests, the Pats have marched by a count of 162-67. That’s an average of 41-17.

Detroit was one of those teams. The Lions arrived at Gillette on Sunday in a tie for first in the NFC North. They had a record good enough that if they’d found a way to be the first team to beat the Patriots at home since December 2012, the two teams would’ve left the stadium with the same record.

Instead, the two teams left looking like they were on entirely different levels.

By throwing the ball on 52 of their first 64 offensive opportunities, the Patriots exploited the weakness in the Lions’ top-ranked defense by essentially avoiding the league’s stoutest run stuffers. The Pats more than doubled the average number of points the Lions had been allowing, scoring 10 more than any prior challenger and also outgaining the rest of the bunch with 439 yards.

Brady slung it for 349 of those, hitting on 11 throws to Julian Edelman and on nine more to Brandon LaFell, but maybe most impressive about the aerial attack was that the quarterback was never sacked. He was pressured plenty. And he took some hits. But the receivers got into their routes quickly while executing them with such precision that Brady was consistently able to get the ball out before getting into trouble.

And, still, the execution might’ve been even better on the defensive side of the ball. Primarily assigning Revis to receiver Golden Tate and Brandon Browner to Calvin Johnson, the Patriots used their two best corners to limit the Lions’ two star receivers. And that left Matthew Stafford looking futile. The quarterback completed only 18 of 46 throws, leaving him with a 39.1 percent completion rate and 264 essentially empty passing yards. Detroit finished 5 of 17 on third down, and only once did they reach the red zone, failing to capitalize on a goal-to-go chance in the second quarter and never again getting nearer than New England’s 25.

“I don’t know if there’s a group of corners playing better than our group right now,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We’re just playing really good as a unit, understanding our game plan and playing to it.”

After the game, a reporter suggested to Revis that this recent stretch has been better than merely good. A big, toothy smile came to his face, followed by a hearty laugh. “You can say that if you want to write that,” he said, keeping it humble instead of taking the bait. “It’s great that we’re 9-2, but at the same time we still have a lot of work to do. It’s still a long season.”

And there are still plenty of challenges ahead — starting next week in Green Bay, when the Patriots face yet another division leader in what some are sure to label as a potential Super Bowl preview. While the Patriots have won seven straight, the Packers have won seven of eight. And Aaron Rodgers is probably the best quarterback the Pats have or will face this season. It should be tough.

Then again, though, it was supposed to have been tough for the past month, and the Patriots continue to make it look remarkably easy.

“We know when we put on these Patriots jerseys for one reason and one reason only,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said, “to win ballgames for one another.”

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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