The New England Patriots don't look like the New England Patriots.
The two-time defending AFC champions fell to 1-2 with a 26-10 loss to the Detroit Lions in Sunday's interconference clash at Ford Field. Detroit is now 1-2 under head coach Matt Patricia, who was the Patriots' defensive coordinator the last six seasons.
Detroit never trailed, snapped a streak of not having a 100-yard rusher in a game since 2013 (Kerryon Johnson had 101 rushing yards) and saw Matthew Stafford (27-of-36 for 262 yards, two touchdowns and one interception) outplay Tom Brady (14-of-26 for 133 yards, one touchdown and one interception).
Even Tom Brady Can't Overcome Flawed Patriots Defense
It is an annual tradition for football fans and pundits to overreact to an early Patriots loss, but expectations in New England are Super Bowl or bust.
Not even the greatness of Brady will be able to lead this team's defense to the promised land.
Brady's 505 passing yards weren't enough to overcome the lackluster defense in last season's 41-33 Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. The unit finished 29th in the league in yards allowed in 2017 and once again looks slow at every level through three games.
This was a chance for the defense to bounce back after allowing 31 points to Blake Bortles and a Jacksonville Jaguars team that scored just six points Sunday, but it instead gave Stafford plenty of time while failing to corral Johnson in holes.
There was confusion before a number of snaps, including when New England was flagged for 12 men on the field. In all, the Patriots forced two punts while allowing 414 total yards in a performance that was worse than the final score indicated.
New England climbed within three in the third quarter just for the defense to let it down again as Stafford dissected it during a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped with a deep ball to Marvin Jones Jr.
The AFC East crown isn't even a guarantee with the Miami Dolphins at 3-0, and this defense does not look ready to contend with the best in the league come January.
Kerryon Johnson Represents Lions' Best Chance at Playoff Contention
The Lions aren't exactly known as a dominant run team. In fact, Reggie Bush was the last one to run for 100 yards in a game on Thanksgiving 2013.
The 2018 second-round pick finally gives them someone to change the offensive formula and take the pressure off Stafford's shoulders. Detroit just needs to recognize him as the primary running back moving forward and not the 31-year-old LeGarrette Blount, who looked slow with plenty of miles on his legs.
Johnson finished with 101 yards on 16 carries and appeared shifty in space and explosive in holes, while Blount had 48 yards on the same number of carries. New England's slow linebackers had no trouble with Blount but struggled to counter Johnson's speed even though he was playing behind an offensive line Football Outsiders ranked as 24th in the league in run blocking entering Week 3.
Detroit needs a strong rushing attack if it is going to compete with the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North, and Johnson is its best chance at just that.
His presence will prevent opposing defenses from sitting back and focusing solely on slowing Golden Tate, Jones and Kenny Golladay. If Johnson forces safeties to creep closer to the line of scrimmage, Stafford and his weapons will have all the more space to exploit.
A one-dimensional attack isn't going to cut it if the Lions plan on contending this season, so they need to unleash Johnson and stop relying so much on Blount.
Beating Patriots Should Restore Lions' Faith in Matt Patricia
The Lions were just 0-2 in Patricia's tenure before Sunday's win, but one would be forgiven if he or she assumed it was 0-15 given the early headlines.
Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reported some veterans were unhappy with how hard Patricia worked them during training camp and the number of rules he put in place, while Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press already wrote a column titled "Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia is in over his head."
To make matters worse, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports reported some of the New York Jets knew Detroit's plays in the Lions' convincing Week 1 loss.
One win doesn't mean everything is fixed, but it should also restore some faith in Patricia. The Lions hired him for a reason, and a two-game sample was far too small for fans and players to give up on him.
The Patriots reached three Super Bowls with him as the defensive coordinator. He comes from a culture of winning, but it will take some time to establish something similar with a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since the 1991 campaign.
Sunday night was a reminder that things don't have to look so dire in the early stages of a process, and it came against the league's gold standard.
The Lions will face the Dallas Cowboys on the road in Week 4, while the Patriots will host a critical divisional game against the Miami Dolphins.