by Scott Benson

The Patriots avoided an embarrassing and hurtful loss tonight with a late 15 point surge that gave them a narrow 28-21 win over the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium.

New England overcame three more turnovers – all soft – and another fumble that turned into a safety to walk away with a much needed win after arguably being outplayed – by a 2-10 team – for most of the day.

Tom Brady and the offense twice pulled off late half flurries to account for 25 of their 28 points, but spent the rest of the day handing the ball over to the Lions 29th ranked defense. Brady threw a horrible 3rd quarter interception and later fumbled into his own end zone for a safety that gave the Lions an eight-point, 4th quarter lead. Ben Watson and Patrick Pass each – on separate occasions, mind you – fumbled the ball right back to Detroit immediately after the Patriots defense had forced a Lions turnover. In neither case was the fumble so much forced as it was offered up.

Jon Kitna passed for more than 300 yards on the Patriots 2nd ranked defense, which allowed 22 first downs to a Detroit squad that hadn’t been scoring on some of the league’s worst defenses. Lions receiver Mike Furrey shredded the Pats secondary for 130 yards and a touchdown, and Kevin Jones ran up 140 yards of total offense with some potentially crippling third down runs and catches.

But Kitna is Kitna, and he turned the ball over twice in the last eight minutes (four times overall) to give the Patriots enough room to wriggle out of the mess they’d made.

Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Wright combined for a strip-sack-and-fumble-recovery that set up the winning touchdown, a four yard run by Corey Dillon with just over two minutes left. Any Detroit hopes for a last minute tie were dashed by the second of Mike Vrabel’s two interceptions, an uncontested jump ball on a Kitna floater gone awry.

Dillon had three rushing scores on just nine carries after Laurence Maroney – who was effectively featured early on – was forced from the game with an undecipherable first quarter injury. Maroney was reported to have the wind knocked out of him, but he was not seen again, calling into question whether it was something worse.

Vrabel also went down with what appeared to be a head injury after being tackled on his game clinching pick. The veteran linebacker – even more indispendable to the Patriots now that Junior Seau has been lost for the season – seemed to shake off the blow as he watched the game’s final plays from the bench.

Artrell Hawkins forced a 2nd quarter Jones fumble inside the Patriots 10 that took Detroit points off the board, and finished a strong game with eight solo tackles and two assists. Ty Warren continued his breakout season with eight solos and two sacks, and Tedy Bruschi led all Pats tacklers with nine solos and two assists.

Yet even with the turnover heroics, and despite Reche Caldwell’s 112 yards on eight catches, the Patriots nearly handed a game to a team that had no business beating them, much less on New England’s own turf. Exactly why will no doubt be debated throughout this week. A good place to start the discussion would be the Patriots ten penalties, most of them mental, which wiped out a handful of positive plays at the most inopportune times.

After a couple of early exchanges between the sides, the Patriots drew first blood with a 17 play, 81 yard drive that led to a Stephen Gostokowski field goal and a 3-0 lead for New England. Caldwell began to emerge here, working to Brady’s right for nearly 40 yards on consecutive catches. The Patriots eschewed a Gostkowski attempt earlier in the drive, with Brady converting a 4th and 1 from the Lions 13. It struck me that these gambles don’t show a lack of faith in the rookie kicker as much as they show a lot of faith in a fourth-down unit that converts at an 80% rate.

But the Lions came right back with a drive of their own, an 85 yarder that ended with Kitna and Furrey badly beating Asante Samuel for an easy 5 yard touchdown catch. The score was set up by a 17 yard Jones swing pass on 3rd and 10, which would not be the last time the Patriots would be stung on 3rd and long.

The momentum went completely to Detroit as Brady and the offense then went backward in a hail of penalty flags and sloppy play. Not excusing the Patriots or anything, but at this point the Patriots had been flagged five times, while Detroit, one of the league’s most penalized teams, was spotless (despite Rosevelt Colvin being held frequently). Jeff Triplette had evidently been sent to Foxboro to even things out a bit between the haves and the have nots. Talk about activist judges.

Detroit continued their roll behind Jones, who carried five times on the next possession and once again brought the Lions inside New England’s 10 yard line. But Hawkins slammed him on a first and goal, sending a pop up over the scrum, and Vrabel picked up the loose ball to dodge the bullet. Lucky for the Patriots – aided by Jones, Kitna continued to move the ball on the Pats with short drops and underneath routes.

Patrick Pass had come on to replace Maroney as Dillon’s relief, and – after a Patriots first down to start the drive – he took a promising second down carry and fumbled the ball right back to the Lions. There was nothing remarkable about the hit that took the ball away. Unlike last week, this time it wasn’t a jarring hit – it was just another sloppy play by the Patriots.

The Lions had been given a reprieve, but the Pats defense stiffened and Jason Hansen – who is about 130 years old – stretched the Detroit lead to seven. The Patriots were headed to halftime trailing one of the worst teams in the league – AT HOME – by a touchdown.

The offense had three minutes, and a heretofore unseen urgency. The Pats started with a reverse to Troy Brown, who just eluded a Lion lineman to break into the secondary for a 16 yard gain. Now near midfield, Brady faded to his left and found Jabar Gaffney alone for a 28 yard gain inside the Lion 30. Next it was a strike to Ben Watson, angling up the left hash to the Lions 6. Dillon pounded in from there, and just like that, the Pats had gone 70 yards in five plays for the tie.

If anyting, they scored too quickly, as Kitna would get the ball again with 1:10 left in the half. He worked with Furrey for a 20 yard gain near midfield, but the drive was stopped when Asante Samuel stepped in front of Corey Bradford for an interception near the Patriots 30. Once again Samuel, the league leader in picks in the final year of his contract, appeared right on the hip of an intended receiver just as the ball arrived. He cut off a potential tie, or go ahead score, with his seventh interception.

With 47 seconds left, Brady wasn’t finished. Caldwell continued to come up big, grabbing a 28 yarder from Brady that put the ball across midfield. Kevin Faulk took a swing pass left for 20 yards, and a quick hitter to Doug Gabriel (back from the dead) gained 12. But the Patriots could go no further (thanks in part to a bonehead Brady scramble that nearly drained the clock) and Gostkowski settled for a three that at least gave the rallying Pats a 13-10 halftime lead.

It wouldn’t last. Detroit took the second half kickoff and again began to march on the Patriots defense that had been headed to a team mark for fewest points allowed in a season. Kevin Jones continued to grind away on the Pats, but it was a marginal third down illegal use of hands penalty on Samuel that set up the tying Jason Hansen field goal.

Things went from bad to worse, as Brady immediately followed with a terrible interception right to Dre Bly, who grabbed it at the New England 47. The pass was intended for Caldwell, but only Bly was anywhere near the ball. The Patriots were now doing everything they could to earn a humiliating loss.

Naturally, Detroit turned the turnover into more points, though they were rocked back by two penalties of their own. But Furrey worked his way open for a 17 yard gain on 3rd and 22, which was just enough for Hansen, who gave the Lions the lead with a 49 yard bomb midway through the third.

The whole thing could have been avoided had not Samuel knocked a sure interception away from Hawkins on a tipped ball.

If you were at home at this point, figuring the Patriots to regain their composure and stop the bleeding, you might have been a little pissed when the kickoff return team took a penalty that started New England inside its own ten. You hadn’t seen anything yet.

After Dillon had been stuffed on 1st down, Brady dropped back to throw from his own 9. The Patriots offensive line sprang leaks in every direction (they had protection problems all day despite allowing just two sacks) and Brady was struck from behind, the ball springing loose. Heath Evans did the best he could with it, recovering it in the end zone, but Detroit had the safety and a sudden five point lead.

After the free kick, the Lions continued their second half roar. They ate up the rest of the quarter by driving deep inside New England territory, despite committing two penalties that nearly stopped them. But Kitna hit Jones for a maddening 25 dump off on 3rd and 22 (aided by a badly blown tackle by Colvin), and then found Furrey, Roy Williams and Jones again to put the ball inside the Pats 10. The Pats defense stiffened here, and Detroit coach Rod Marinelli took a pass on a 4th and 1 from the Patriots 8. Hansen’s field goal made it an eight point game, but it could have been worse.

Still, eight points down to a 2-9 team on a three game losing streak was bad enough. The Patriots were only minutes away from their worst loss in recent memory.

But as he had in the waning moments of the first half, Brady led his team back. An unnecessary roughness call on Detroit on the kickoff return placed the ball at the Patriots 42, and Brady began working underneath to Kevin Faulk (four catches on the drive) and Patrick Pass (a 16 yard swing pass) to move the ball quickly to the Lions 10. Pass and Evans took shots, but again it was Dillon with the scoring run on 2nd down from the Detroit two.

The touchdown left the Patriots down 21-19 with 8:35 remaining, so New England went for the two, and the tie. Brady surveyed a crowded end zone for a good while before sliding left and patiently hitting a wide open Troy Brown for the conversion that tied the game after eleven unanswered Lion points.

Kitna took the ball with plenty of time left for a chance to still beat the heavily favored Patriots. But what’s that they say about water finding its own level? One play after ominously starting the drive by hitting Dan Campbell at midfield, Kitna was intercepted by Mike Vrabel, and the Patriots had the ball again.

Not for long. After Brady hit him with a 9 yard pass on 1st down, Ben Watson fumbled after taking a pretty pedestrian hit. Watson may be a physical freak and Brady’s go-to receiver, but plays like this make him more trouble than he’s than he’s worth. In the last two weeks, the tight end has handed the ball over three times.

So Detroit had their second reprieve of the day, and again Kitna got the Lions rolling with another pass (this one an 18 yarder to Kevin Jones) that brought the Lions to midfield. They held the ball at their own 47 with 6:03 left and a chance to take the lead.

Again with the water thing. On the next play, Kitna was stripped by Rosevelt Colvin, who blew through the left side of the Detroit line to blindside the quarterback. The fumble was covered by Mike Wright at the Detroit 32, and after doing everything they could to hand the underdog the game, the Patriots were in position to escape with their hides intact.

The Patriots ate up the next 3:24 working the ball towards the Lion goal, with a six yard completion to Caldwell on 3rd and 5 a drive-saver. Brady then hit Troy Brown twice to take it down inside the Detroit 10, and Dillon capped the comeback with a 4 yard TD – his third – on a prototypical Bully Brother lead play to his left. Gostkowski added the PAT and the Pats were up seven. New England had rallied for 15 points in a little over eight minutes.

This time Kitna held it three whole plays before floating one into the arms of a waiting Vrabel. After tormenting the Patriots for much of the afternoon, the journeyman had twice in the waning minutes handed the ball – and the game – to New England. Which, for all his passing yards, would explain why he’s currently playing football in Detroit, and not someplace nicer.

Brady finished the game taking three knees from the Detroit 35. He had completed an incredible 14 of 15 passes in the fourth quarter (27 of 38 overall, for 305 yards) to once again save the day for the Patriots. A game that seemed at times out of control ended pretty peacefully for New England.

Let the post-game autopsies begin, for there’s precious little time for them. With Miami on the horizon, the Patriots must now turn their attention to the Dolphins, and a huge divisional game on the road.

Come to think of it, they may have already done that. That would explain a lot.