"What the [bleep] happened?"
Jim Schwartz's lips were read by every turkey-stuffed American on every overloaded couch in America. After years of embarrassing Thanksgiving Day NFL games, the 2-9 Detroit Lions had clawed their way to a third-quarter lead over the 9-2 New England Patriots.
But seconds before Schwartz's outburst, Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith had flailed haplessly while Deion Branch beat him for a 79-yard touchdown. The Lions head coach knew the dam had burst, and the Patriots rolled until the final gun.
The final score of that game was 45-24. History will remember it as one of many Turkey Day blowouts, though Schwartz's Lions kept it close until the fourth quarter. This Saturday, the Pats return to Ford Field for 2011's "dress rehearsal": the third preseason game.
Typically, both teams' starters play the full first half; sometimes longer. Both coaching staffs will game-plan against each other like it matters. It's as close to the real thing as preseason gets, and the Lions are preparing like it is the real thing.
Per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, the Lions signed former Patriots reserve center Chris Morris this week, possibly to pick his brain. With health a question, and multiple backup centers already on the roster, espionage may be his greatest value to the Lions. This relentless advantage-seeking is commonplace in December, but August?
It's not just the Lions coaches who are taking this game seriously. On Tuesday, the Lions announced the Patriots game had sold out. With Ford Field sold out for a preseason game for the first time since 2005, and CBS in town to broadcast the game nationally in prime time, the atmosphere will be closer to postseason than preseason.
It's only fitting, after all; both teams see themselves as playoff caliber. For the Patriots, this is obvious—they're perennial Super Bowl contenders coming off a 14-2 season. For the Lions, this seems like hubris—they're perennial losers for whom last season's 6-10 mark was marked improvement. A decade ago, though, Bill Belichick and the Patriots were as the Lions are.
Belichick is known for supreme self-confidence, but at the start of his second season as Patriots head coach, he had little to back it up. His first campaign ended with a 5-11 record. Fans and media were grumbling about quarterback Drew Bledsoe's slipping performance. The roster was stocked with unproven assets and reclamation projects.
Still, Belichick and the Patriots remained convinced they were something special.
The Patriots lost Bledsoe for the season in Week 2—and lost three of their first four games. But 24-year-old sixth-round pick Tom Brady took over, and the rest is literally history. The Patriots defied pressure and expectations all year long, up to and through Super Bowl XXXVI.
Though the Patriots faced Kurt Warner and the "Greatest Show on Turf" as 14-point underdogs, they never wavered. Though the football world considered their victory a shocking upset, the Patriots seemed unsurprised.
Jim Schwartz broke into the NFL as a player personnel intern with Belichick's Cleveland Browns. Like Belichick, Schwartz's tight-lipped approach to injury and roster information frustrates media and fans alike. Like Belichick, he often seems convinced he's got an edge on everyone else in football. Like Belichick, he's put the pieces in place for a world-shocking franchise turnaround.
Of course, this is preseason, not the Super Bowl. Of course, the final score won't count. Of course, the fourth quarter will feature players who won't make either team. No matter what happens Saturday night, the Patriots will be considered favorites to win it all, and the Lions will still have a lot to prove.
But if all goes according to Jim Schwartz's plan, the Lions will—at least once—force his former mentor to look to the heavens and wonder what just happened.