November 19, 2014

The Detroit Lions are midway through what could turn out to be the most demanding two-week road stretch in the NFL this season.

If they're going to come out of it with a split, they'll almost certainly need an offensive awakening Sunday against the New England Patriots, who have won 14 straight at home and shown considerable versatility during their own challenging span of games.

While the Lions (7-3) were held to 262 yards in last Sunday's 14-6 loss at NFL-best Arizona, the AFC-leading Patriots (8-2) have pulled off consecutive 22-point wins with very different offensive approaches against strong opponents.

First, Bill Belichick went to the air in a 43-21 home win over Denver on Nov. 2. After a bye, he then elected to go after Indianapolis on the ground in Sunday's 42-20 road win.

Against the Broncos, New England threw 53 passes and attempted 25 runs. The Patriots then ran it 44 times versus the Colts while throwing 30 times.

"We always try to stay balanced," said Tom Brady, who threw for a modest 257 yards with two touchdowns and an uncharacteristic two interceptions. "You never go in saying we're going to run it this much or throw it this much. You try to get the runs on your terms, and if they're going to load up and stop it, you've got to throw it, but if they're not going to respect the running game, you've got to keep giving it to him."

Jonas Gray handled nearly the entire rushing load, coming 11 yards shy of the franchise record with 201 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries. The Patriots upped their rushing total by 180 yards from the previous week to a season-high 246.

Gray had carried a total of 32 times in his previous three NFL games, but the hard-running 24-year-old isn't feeling any ill effects.

"Surprisingly, I feel great. I actually just did some extra conditioning," Gray said Monday. "I'm feeling good, ready for a big week against Detroit."

He might have some help this week after New England brought back LeGarrette Blount on Thursday, two days after being released by Pittsburgh following his jog toward the tunnel with time still on the clock during the Steelers' game last week.

Blount, who ran for 266 yards and two touchdowns this season, rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. He had 166 yards and four touchdowns rushing in the Patriots' 43-22 playoff victory over Indianapolis on Jan. 11.

Moving the ball against the Lions has been one of the most difficult tasks in football, however. They've held opponents to 15.6 points and 290.3 yards per game, which are both league lows.

The Lions' league-best run defense is holding teams to 68.8 yards per game and 3.03 per carry. If those numbers hold up, they'll be the best in the NFL since Pittsburgh in 2010 (62.8, 3.02).

That could send New England back to the passing game, which has accounted for 20 TDs in six straight wins, and Brady's 115.8 rating in that time ranks second to Aaron Rodgers. The Lions, however, have already humbled Rodgers.

"We're going against a very good football team, but we're not going in this with a mindset like, 'Oh, they're unbeatable, they do everything so amazing,'" Lions safety James Ihedigbo told the team's official website.

"We are the No. 1 defense. We've kind of earned that. Respect is not given in this league. It's earned. We've earned that and it's one of those games where you have to play like it and that's what it's going to boil down to."

That doesn't change the fact that Detroit needs to find its way offensively. After a strong Week 1 showing in a 35-14 win over the New York Giants, the Lions have averaged 17.0 points and failed to total more than 385 yards of offense.

Coach Jim Caldwell, though, remains confident despite Matthew Stafford's 80.6 quarterback rating over six games and a rushing attack ranked 30th at 80.2 yards per game.

"They've shown in spurts they have grit, they're tough, they come back, they fight you," Caldwell said. "Even in (the Arizona) ball game, the effort was unreal. When you get that kind of effort, you just have to work on execution and some things. We'll get better. I do think this team has the fortitude to be real resilient under disappointment."

The run game could receive a boost from Reggie Bush, who missed the Arizona game with an ankle injury but said he plans to play against the Patriots.

Opponent rushing totals the last two weeks against New England might make him reconsider. The Broncos and Colts combined for 62 yards on 34 carries after the Patriots' first eight foes managed 4.57 yards per rush.

Through the air, New England held its own against Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, limiting two of the league's top passers to an 84.6 rating.

Still, the biggest obstacle facing Detroit could be its environment. Disappointment is about all visitors have walked away with during the Patriots' 43-3 regular-season stretch at Gillette Stadium.

New England's home win streak is the longest current run in the league, and it comes with a 13.6-point margin of victory. Its overall six-game streak is tied with the Cardinals for tops in the NFL, and the Patriots have won their last three with the Lions.

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