by Scott Benson

It may seem like a bit of a comedown after last Sunday’s tense battle between playoff contenders, but this weekend’s match-up with the 2-9 Detroit Lions in Foxboro is no less significant to the playoff futures of the New England Patriots.

The Patriots must win to stay at pace with both San Diego and Baltimore and keep alive their hopes of securing a first round bye when the playoffs begin the first weekend in January.

It’s already an uphill battle. The Pats not only trail San Diego by one game in the loss column, they trail both the Chargers and the 9-3 Ravens in nearly all of the tiebreakers (even with Cincinnati’s helpful win over Baltimore last night). Their best chance may be to pass the field on the outside by winning out while the Chargers lose two of five and the Ravens drop another.

The good news is that the Patriots have the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams, by a decent margin. As John Tomase reported earlier this week, New England’s remaining opponents own a .363 winning percentage, compared to .455 for Baltimore and .500 for San Diego.

Still, the Pats are trying to thread a camel through the eye of a needle here. A misstep on Sunday will narrow that eye (or fatten the camel?) even more, perhaps too much to leave any hope.

With another ‘must win’ before them, the Patriots could have tougher opponents than the Lions. Detroit’s headed for another lost season. In typical Lions fashion, they started 0-5 under new coach Rod Marinelli. But they surged to a 2 of 3 run (home wins over Buffalo and Atlanta). Now they’re coming off a three game November tailspin, with their offense drying up against some pretty weak sisters. In back to back losses earlier this month, the Lions scored a grand total of 23 points in eight quarters against the 28th (Arizona, on the road) and 31st (San Fransisco) ranked defenses.

Overall, the Lions are 25th in scoring offense, and 29th defensively. They rush for about 76 yards a game (31st) and give up about 130 (23rd). They throw for a surprising amount of yards given the lack of output (239 PG, 7th in the league), but that can probably be explained (25th in giveaways). The Lions pass defense comes in at a comparatively respectable 19th, but they don’t take the ball away all that often (24th in takeaways).

Yet none of this can really matter to the Pats at game time. Bill Belichick said it Monday – at this time of year, every game is a big one. In that sense, this one’s no different than last week.

A little housekeeping before we get to the panel – this week, we welcome our friend Tim Jordan as a full-time member of Team GDRV. We so enjoyed his entries last week that we asked him to stick around and help us get the Pats back to another Super Bowl. Should be a good time, and if nothing else, we’ll be closing the word count gap between us and Bill Simmons. All right, everybody move down one chair.

As last week vividly illustrated, the Patriots have become one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league. This week they rank 25th in giveaways, with 21. This especially stings given the way last season ended. Bill Belichick’s teams usually win the turnover battles – why are they losing them now?

Greg: Turnovers can run in streaks. But that can’t be the only explanation. Some of it has to be good play by the opposition, but some of it also has to be sloppiness by the Patriots themselves. The good thing about turnover problems, they’re correctable. It isn’t like a lack of speed, or football intelligence or lack of athletic ability to play in the NFL. You can work on turnover problems and get better at protecting the ball. Even at midseason. I suspect it’s been a point of emphasis with the Patriots these last few weeks, even though it didn’t show up last week. Hopefully for their sake you’ll see improvement from here on out.

Tim: This is where just looking at the seasonal statistics can be somewhat misleading. The first 3 games of the season they were turning the ball over and, even with the defense playing well, not getting any turnovers of their own. In the eight games since then, they have lost the turnover battle in three games (and I bet you know which ones they are without looking), predictably losing 2 of them. I don’t see an epidemic threatening to be the team’s fatal flaw here. If you look at the losses, the turnovers were uncharacteristic (culiminanted by Brady’s 4 interception game against Polianapolis). In the win they turned the ball over 5 times, but forced 4 of their own, in the best played 9 turnover game I have ever seen. I hated seeing each one of those turnovers, but each one made the Chicago defense look good more than making the Patriots offense look bad. I think that’s called being an “apologist”, which I think is much more dignified than being a “sympathizer”.

Bruce:These things sure seem to come in bunches. It’s hard what to attribute them to, as Tim says, you have to give some credit to the defense, but at the same time, the opposing defenses seem to have spotted a weakness and are going for it. Once a team has a reputation as being turnover prone, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy – teams look for opportunities to take the ball away, perhaps even increasing their efforts at stripping the ball or taking chances. The good news is that the Patriots have been forcing turnovers themselves, and still have a few weeks to get their act together on offense.

Scott: I agree – there’s times you just have to tip your cap to the other guys, like on the play Sunday when Laurence Maroney was held up and stripped. I don’t know what he could have done about that – it was just a good play by the defender. But there’s been others that were simply sloppy, unfocused plays by the Pats. They’re now turning the ball over at an average of nearly 2 per game, a greater rate than at any point over the last four years. Why? What with everything they’ve been dealing with offensively (new players all around, and trying to get everyone on the same page), I’m figuring maybe a focus on ball security has taken a back seat. The word is this week the coach has been hammering them on it – we”ll see if it makes a difference.

Most observers laughed when Junior Seau undid his retirement to sign with the Pats. Locally, the idea that Seau could contibute to the Patriots in any significant way was scoffed at. In fact, more than a few labeled it a ‘desperation move’ by the Pats. Now that Seau’s season is over, how would you assess his impact on the team? How big of an issue is his absence?

Tim: As I noted last week, I really liked the way the aging Samoan was playing this year. It just seemed like a very good fit between his skills and experience (and work ethic if anyone on the team is to be believed) and the defensive system. Quite a breath of fresh air after the Monty Beisel Experience in 05. Speaking of fresh air, I like having the guy who breaks his arm and leaves the field in an air cast waving to the crowd under his own power and not the one who hurts his funnybone and needs a souped up golf cart (apparently they removed the governor) to get him to Vicodin Lake. As far as Seau’s loss on the team, I think it’s big. Bigger than any other loss they have endured this year. They won’t be as dominant in certain situations now with Vrabel playing out of his best position. It’s not insurmountable, but I am glad that they have finished playing the best teams on their schedule. Give Tully and Vrabel time to adjust and improve for the playoffs.

Bruce:It’s fairly amusing that a move that was scoffed at by many in the preseason has turned into a situation where the same people who scoffed are now in a panic that the guy is done for the year. I’m pretty confident in saying that the guy outdid almost everyone’s expectations for him coming into the season. His loss is tough, but as the linebackers have repeatedly said this week, they will adjust and Vrabel should be fine in the middle next to Bruschi. I’d like to see another veteran body brought in for the last few weeks of the season as some insurance however.

Scott: Even us optimists didn’t expect a whole lot from Seau, but he turned out to be one of the most consistent players on defense, even if he did make Pepper mad by free lancing once or twice. Maybe its time for those of us who dismissed Junior to admit we were talking out of our hat again. It’s a damn shame that he wasn’t able to make it the whole way – like I’ve said before, football sucks sometimes. I don’t, however, think this cripples the Pats going forward. Mike Vrabel is a great football player; who better to plug a hole when you need one plugged? And Tully Banta Cain has been one of the better pass rushers this season – getting him more playing time might not be a bad thing. The depth will be a concern, but I think people tend to undervalue people like Don Davis. That guy has almost always answered the bell when called on, and if he has to fill in a play or two here and there to keep everyone fresh, I hardly think the world will crash down on him and the rest of the Pats defense.

Greg: I thought, in general, he was very good. One of the better players on defense and a leader. The short sample of life without him last week wasn’t good, at least in terms of defending the run. That is somewhat unfair, however, as you need a week of practice without him to really assess. And maybe a better opponent than Detroit, too. Still, I think they can replace him adequately among the main rotation. What worries me is the depth. Without Seau, they’re at the point they really can’t take any more major injuries among the linebackers.

The Patriots have split their running back carries pretty much down the middle this season, but it seemed in November that the focus shifted more to Laurence Maroney. He had more attempts than Corey Dillon (57 to 47 for the month), became active in the passing game for the first time (4 catches in each of the last two weeks) and he certainly has logged more snaps than his veteran teammate. Over the final month, will the younger, more explosive player further assert himself as the Pats lead runner, and will Dillon see his role further decreased?

Bruce: It’s a natural progression, somewhat faster than many had anticipated. Don’t count Corey out however. I think the Patriots are doing their best to rest him a bit, keep him healthy in hopes that he’ll be a factor in the cold weather games. His punishing style is well suited for the rough and tumble football of December, January and (hopefully) February. I think Dillon will also continue to be used more in the red zone to attempt to pound the ball into the end zone.

Scott: I’m surprised there hasn’t been more made of this, but I’m not counting Tomase and Felger out. They’ll make something of this yet. To me, anyway, there has been a perceptable shift between the two; Dillon may start the game, but Maroney seems to be a bigger part of the offense now. The theory has been that they were keeping everyone – particularly the veteran Dillon – fresh for the stretch run, but hey, its the stretch run right now, and I’m seeing Maroney on the field more and more. All due respect to one of the best runners of his generation (who is still a valuable commodity near the goal line), but between the 20’s, Maroney’s now the better player, and I think we’re seeing more of him as a result.

Greg: No, they have been alternating series, save an injury or other reason to come out of the game, consistently every game for 9 or 10 games now. They literally rotate every series, except when Dillon has gotten hurt or winded (which has happened more frequently than you’d like). Or if they go to a special formation like five wide. But when they’re conventional, they rotate. They tried rotating by favored plays early on and that wasn’t too effective. Now they just go by series and I suspect they’ll stick to it.

Tim: I think the Bully Brother has been banged up in November which helped open the door for more Maroney carries. Personally, I prefer the early season two back approach because it was effective and they both have different running styles. Ideally that’s what I’d like to see again, but I don’t think Dillon’s health will cooperate. My hunch is Maroney starts approaching 20 carries a game as the playoffs approach and he becomes more of a fixture in the passing game. Dillon should continue to get plenty of goal line work inside the 10. I love Dillon, but Maroney is just electric. For someone his size, his acceleration is just so impressive. Smooth, fast, powerful runner. For the first time since 01, the team’s best draftee was their first round choice.

What’s your take on the playoff race for the bye? Do the Pats have a realistic chance, or should they be getting ready to host a game on Wild Card Weekend?

Scott: The Ravens loss last night gives hope, though a 2nd seed still seems like an uphill battle because: 1) of the tiebreakers, and; 2) there’s two teams ahead of them rather than just one. What’s wrong with the 3rd seed, though? If you have to play on Wild Card Weekend, it might as well be against the 6th seed. At this rate, that gives them the rapidly declining Denver Broncos at Gillette. I’ll tell you, the Broncos free fall has been the best story of the last month, and their drop has neutered their head to head advantage over the Pats. Beautiful. Now they’re benching their starter and turning to a rookie QB on the first weekend in December. Things have really been going well out there. Heee.

Greg: Yes. I think Baltimore will lose 2-3 games as will San Diego. I don’t see the Patriots losing more than one. While that doesn’t guarantee them a bye at 12-4 or 13-3, it should put them in the mix and the tie-breakers will determine.

Tim: Of course they do. I don’t care who is on the schedule, winning 5 in a row in the NFL is dificult for any team and I am having trouble accepting the fact that Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers are better teams than the New England Patriots. The Ravens lost to the Panthers at home this year and face a Bengal team that they beat by 6 only 3 weeks ago at home. In fact, they are 3 point dogs tonight. San Diego has a tough slate upcoming: At Buffalo, Denver, KC, and at Seattle. Are you telling me they are so dominant they couldn’t drop one or two of those? In 21 seasons as a head coach, Marty Schottenheimer has never won more than 13 games and he’s only done that twice. I want 13 NE wins and that bye, but the more I think about these two teams, I don’t care where the Patriots play either of them – they beat them when it counts. Although Brian Billick is the best game day coach he’s ever seen.

Bruce: It might seem like a tall order, as the Jets loss really hurts their AFC record as compared to the other clubs ahead of them. The Patriots are likely going to have to win out, and then hope for help. I think that scenario is plausible, though perhaps not probable. I’d really like the bye, but the more important thing is how they’re playing going into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh showed last season. In any event, I’m just glad we’re able to have this discussion and it should be a very interesting five weeks.

During last week’s episode, Tim said picking games each week is ridiculous. Ouch! But that was before he really got to know and appreciate our Big Board of Predictions. I’m sure he’s pumped to do it this time. Unfortunately, we’re looking at a largely lackluster slate this week: Indianapolis at Tennessee, Kansas City at Cleveland, NY Jets at Green Bay, San Diego at Buffalo, Jacksonville at Miami, and Seattle at Denver.

Tim (2-4 last week, 2-4 overall, .333) : I like Tennessee over Indy coming off a stirring come from behind job against the Giants and after giving the Colts all they could handle in Polianapolis. I like KC over Cleveland because the Browns remind me of the snobby Sudbury girl I had to endure this week. I like Brett Favre to “have fun out there”, but lose to the over-hyped Jets (Quick aside: how can one look at Mangini’s humble roots and not think the guy has more ambition than heart? He leaves the guy who took a chance on him as a snot-nosed ball boy 11 years ago and on his way out decides to try and recruit some of the staff to defect with him. I hope Eric “Mangenius” burns himself dipping bacon into a vat of melted cheese and gets bed sores in the hospital). I see Levy’s Legions making LT uncomfortable and winning at home. Jacksonville takes Miami out for a Sabanese dinner and Seattle becomes Jay Cutler’s first NFL victim. Despite the rookie’s first win, Shanahan’s mouth will still look like a sphincter after the game.

Greg (5-1 last week, 41-29 overall, .585): Tim is right, it is ridiculous when you got someone doing it as poorly as I have this year. Lets endorse Tim’s theory and give me the alphabetically first team in every game (Indy, Cleveland, Green Bay, Buffalo, Jacksonville and Denver for those of you scoring at home). Could I do any worse with this method?

Bruce (Bye week last week, 44-20 overall, .687): I gotta go with Indy, the Titans had their Super Bowl last week. Cleveland in the upset. (Don’t see Romeo getting outcoached by Herm) The Jets take out Green Bay, the Bills upset the Chargers, Miami continues their resurgence with a win over the Jaguars and Denver takes out Seattle.

Scott (5-1 last week, 44-26 overall, .628): I’ll take the Colts to continue along towards the first seed, passing another test against the mighty AFC South. How do those guys hold up under that strain? Cleveland has had one of the most depressing seasons in the league this year (come home, Romeo), so I’ve got Kansas City. I’ll take the Jets, Chargers and Jags on the road, and Santa, if you’re listenting, I want a disasterous debut by Jay Cutler and a Seahawks road win in Denver.

How about it boys? Hang a final outcome and score on the Pats and Lions.

Greg: This should be easy. The only player to fear is Roy Williams on the Lions. I see a 23-6 final in a ho-hum easy victory.

Bruce: I’ll say 24-14 Patriots. The Lions are going to move the ball some. Roy Williams is a player at receiver and Furrey isn’t bad either. I think Kitna will make some hookups with those guys. Kevin Jones is a decent back as well.

Scott: Pats, 24-7. The Patriots defense is headed towards a team record for fewest points allowed, and even Jon Kitna can’t stop them now.

Tim: 27-10 New England. I’ll be watching this one from home, since I am going to the Miami game. Besides, Marinelli-Bellichick I is nuanced chess match I want to see in high definition.

I’m sure some numb nuts has said or written something incredibly stupid this week. Now’s your time to take a whack at him. It’s our Mediot of the Week!

Bruce: The Globe has been the object of my wrath for years, but this season the Herald has done it’s best to become my number one target. This week alone we had Felger and his “report” about Pioli and Belichick making a deal with Bill Parcells to keep Adam Vinatieri underpaid, Tomase trying to make Belichick’s statements about the Lions look stupid and Massarotti’s general doom and gloom outlook. They easily outdo the Globe in stupidity when covering the Patriots. Mike Reiss has saved the Globe between his blog and his ascension to the beat. The irony of this of course, is that Reiss was originally under the Herald/MetroWest Daily News umbrella and they lost him to the Globe. In fact, they brought Tomase in from the Red Sox beat on the Eagle-Tribune to take the Patriots beat. How different things could’ve been had the Herald been able to hang onto Reiss. I guess I’m giving the award this week to the higher ups at the Herald who decided to change the tone of Patriots coverage for the worse.

Scott: I have been remiss in not mentioning Paul Zimmerman’s hatchetjob on Richard Seymour a couple of weeks ago, based on another of his precious film reviews (the same kind that leads him to assert that Corey Ivy is all-pro). He basically slaughtered Seymour for his performance in the Jets loss, and suggested (in the words of a BSMW poster) he has a bit of Manny in him. Of course, then he says “well, MAYBE he’s hurt”, which gave him the opportunity to (AGAIN) complain about the way the Pats share information. If the Patriots were more open with Paul (he’s no freaking Doctor), he wouldn’t have to call Seymour a dog. But the Pats MADE him do it. He had no choice.

Tim: Remember the good old days back in the 01-04 seasons when we would have an endless pool of farcical columns to point and laugh at? We had the “Tapioca Kid” Kevin Mannix writing something ridiculously out of touch every week or so, Nick Cafardo (my personal favorite) passive aggressively taking petty shots at the organization on a daily basis, Ken Powers cutting and pasting from the worst football writer of our generation, Peter King, and the “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of the Boston sports media, Ron Borges, writing some of the most asinine prose you’ll ever read on a sports page twice a week taking vitriolic pot shots at the winningest coach in the game for benching his best source. Now it’s different. The real idiocy is left to the airwaves where the team itself hosts some of the worst offenders in Gary Tanguay, the aforementioned Borges, and Andy Gresh on their pre and post game show. You throw in the full slate of WEEI programming, as well as the insipid cable shows (NEST, NE Tailgate, Four Downs with Felger ) and you’ve got all the crap in one broadcast cesspool. I am highlighting a ubiquitous and particularly agregious member of this fraternity this week, Greg Dickerson. The Sports Dick gets the nod simply for being a part of the Gillette Stadium experience as the PA announcer. Of all places, the stadium should be an escape from that stupidity. It’s where the games actually take place. It should be out of the reach of bottom feeding muck rakers like Greg Dickerson, even if he’s just reading Bob’s Sporting Goods spots between the action. Free Gillette!

Greg: I’ll pick Gary Tanguay for going predictable on Fox Sports Tonight show Wednesday. This was really easy to spot coming a mile away. Newsflash, Tanger, you don’t have to trot out the ole “trap game” gobbeldygook every time a good team plays a bad one midseason or so in the NFL. Its just an easy throwaway line that lacks analysis and which probably turns out right 10% of the time. Given the nature of upsets in the NFL, that is often enough for some stupid commentator like Tanguay to say “Seeeeeeee…..”, but not real significant in the grand scheme of things. If you really think Detroit might win this game, tell us why. Just don’t throw “trap game!!!!” up on the wall and hope it sticks, Tanger. But then again, I know you really don’t have much more than that to offer.