FOXBORO -- If the Patriots want to make some moves up the standings, now is the time to do it.
Sure, they're likely going to be starting a rookie quarterback on Sunday, with Bailey Zappe getting the nod barring a miraculous recovery by Mac Jones' ankle. But this weekend's game against the Lions is the start of the softest part of New England's schedule, something the Patriots must take advantage of if they want to turn this thing around after a 1-3 start.
After Detroit comes to town, the Patriots travel to Cleveland (2-2), host Chicago (2-2) on Monday Night Football, visit the 2-2 New York Jets, host Indianapolis (1-2-1) before their bye week, and then get the Jets at home after getting a week off. This isn't just a soft cushion of a schedule, it's a bouncy house that the Patriots can use as a springboard. These are six extremely winnable games for New England, no matter who is at quarterback.
It all starts with the Lions at Gillette Stadium, a game that the Patriots cannot lose on their home turf. Here's what we'll be watching for in Sunday's battle of 1-3 teams -- though we all know that everyone will be fixed on those incredible Pat Patriot uniforms that New England will be wearing.
The kid showed us what he's got when he was thrust into action against the Packers, making his NFL debut on the road in Green Bay and tasked with opposing and all-time great in Aaron Rodgers. The offense that Zappe ran was a very simplified offense and the results were nothing earth-shattering -- 10-for-15 for 99 yards and a touchdown -- but the rookie didn't seem too fazed by the spotlight. He had moments where he looked terrified, but that was to be expected. Overall, he handled things pretty well.
Zappe is now in line for his first career start this weekend, unless the scientists at Patriot Place have concocted some sort of magical ankle serum for Mac Jones. (Maybe the folks at TB12 have something in the works.) He'll have a full week of practice with New England's top teamers, and on Sunday, he'll get to showcase his game against the NFL's worst defense.
The Lions have had very little success slowing down opposing offenses over the last four weeks, ranking dead last in the NFL in allowing 35.3 points per game. They're coming off a loss in which they allowed the Seattle Seahawks to score 48 points. Seattle had scored 47 points total in their three games ahead of that matchup.
The Detroit defense is allowing a hair under 280 passing yards per game so far, so Zappe should be able to make some things happen this Sunday, even if he's still operating with a set of training wheels attached. We'll see if the coaching staff lets the kid open things up, considering this weekend's opponent.
Pats Backs Should Run Wild
New England's offensive focus will likely start on the ground, because as shocking as it may sound, the Lions are not very good at stopping the run either. Detroit also ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed per rush, surrendering 5.6 yards per carry.
That is a lot. Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson should feast against this defense all afternoon. As wild as it sounds, both could hit the century mark against this defense.
Getting going on the ground will let the Patriots bleed the clock, and will also let Zappe run some play action.
On the flip side, the Lions should be able to run the ball too. Detroit is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, which leads the NFL. The Patriots run defense is... not great either. They've allowed 330 rushing yards over the last six quarters.
The Patriots are desperate for some help in the middle of the field. They brought back Jamie Collins for the 30th time this week, so maybe he can help a bit in that department.
If both teams can run wild on Sunday, we could be in for one short football game.
As bad as the Lions are on defense, they're ferocious on offense. Which is wild considering Jared Goff is their quarterback, and nothing about him screams ferocity.
But he's off to a spectacular start this season, tied for the NFL lead with 11 touchdown passes. Detroit scored a touchdown in 11 straight quarters to start the season to set a new NFL record. The Lions are averaging 35 points and 436.8 yards per game, both of which lead the league.
It could be a long day for the New England secondary on Sunday, unless Bill Belichick has a Super Bowl LIII-like game plan waiting for the former Ram.
Goff has had several playmakers by his side, from receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (23 receptions, 253 yards, three touchdowns) to tight end T.J. Hockenson to running backs Jamaal Williams (leads NFL with six rushing scores) and D'Andre Swift. All are capable of making big plays at any moment.
Swift, St. Brown, and receiver DJ Chark all sat out last week's loss to the Seahawks, but the Lions still accumulated 520 yards of offense. That was thanks, in large part, to Hockenson going off for 179 yards and two touchdowns on his eight catches.
But Hockenson is still a bit banged up, and Swift and St. Brown (especially Swift) may have to miss a second straight game. The mighty Lions offense may not be so mighty on Sunday.
But again, Detroit was missing players last weekend and they still lit up the scoreboard. Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson are certainly doing something right.
The Red Zone
This is a huge key for the Patriots on both sides of the ball. The Lions have scored touchdowns in 88 percent of their trips into the red area. When opponents get inside the 20, the New England defense has allowed touchdowns on 69.23 percent of the possessions, ranking 22nd in the NFL.
That's bad. But it's not Detroit defense bad. The Lions are at the bottom of the barrel in red zone defense, allowing touchdowns on an absurd 87 percent of their opposition's trips inside the 20.
The New England offense has scored touchdowns on just 55 percent of their red zone trips. If they can't score against the Lions inside the red zone, even with a rookie quarterback, then we've got some serious questions for Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.
Bonus: Getting Right at Right Tackle
The Patriots made a change at right tackle midway through last week's loss, benching the struggling Isaiah Wynn for a throwback performance by Marcus Cannon. With Cannon earning a promotion from the practice squad this week, could he be in line for a start on Sunday?
Whoever starts at right tackle, they need to be ready to deal with Aidan Hutchinson. The No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft only has four NFL games under his belt, but it's clear that he's going to be a menace for years to come. He had a three-sack game against Washington in Week 2, and has six QB hits for the young season.
Whether it's Wynn or Cannon on the right side of the New England offensive line, they're probably going to have their hands full with Hutchinson.
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