Response to adversity speaks volumes

DETROIT -- There are certain games that tell a lot about a football team. Vince Wilfork believes the New England Patriots' 45-24 win over the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving was one of them.

"We fight, man. The one thing we have on this team is heart," Wilfork said in a jubilant postgame locker room. "This game was all about character, all about guts, who you really are."

This Patriots win, the ninth in an unexpected season of success, was indeed all about resolve.

The Lions controlled the action through the first quarter and a half, quarterback Tom Brady was getting pounded into the turf, and the New England defense couldn't provide enough resistance. At that point, as the Lions built a 14-3 lead, the Patriots were the boxer absorbing more of the punches and staggering to stay on his feet.

Some teams panic in those situations and might even get knocked out. This season's Patriots get tougher and punch harder, which is what Wilfork likes about them.

"When things are going wrong, instead of trying to make a play on their own, I think guys focus in a little more and have enough pride to take it upon themselves to do their job. The times we didn't do that this season, we lost," he said.

"At halftime, everybody came in and decided that we weren't going to feel sorry for ourselves. We were on the short week, coming off a tough game against Indy, and then we traveled here to play against a team that plays this game every year; it's like their Super Bowl. We had guys beat up, we had guys tired, but I don't think anybody felt sorry for themselves. We challenged each other in the locker room."

The Patriots answered those challenges in a big way, outscoring the Lions 35-7 in the second half.

Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty's third-quarter interception, which came with the Lions leading 17-10 and set up a tying touchdown, was viewed as the turning point by both teams.

From that point on, Wilfork saw a different team.

"It was nothing magical, just guys responding to the call," he said. "I'm not happy it took us that long. It wasn't pretty at times. But in the second half, to give up just seven points, that was big for us."

It was big for the offense, too, especially after Brady was battered early, crunched by impressive Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh for a sack to end the Patriots' first drive and absorbing a few other blows from veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch.

But things settled down, with coach Bill Belichick citing the running game as a main reason why. The Lions had to respect play-action, negating some of their aggressiveness. Once Brady got in a rhythm, he was unstoppable.

When Brady plays like he did Thursday -- 21-of-27 for 341 yards and four touchdowns -- anything is possible for the Patriots.

"We showed some resiliency," said Brady, who broke his own Patriots record for consecutive passes without an interception (199).

"We have a lot of guys that fight, and it was good to see nobody ever getting down," added receiver Wes Welker, who had a team-high eight receptions and two touchdowns. "When that happens, good things are going to happen."

Even the hard-to-please Belichick seemed impressed, giving players the next four days off before they return Tuesday to prepare for a big "Monday Night Football" game against the Jets on Dec. 6.

"I appreciate what these guys have done so far this year. To be where we're at has taken a lot of hard work," he said.

Wilfork sees more hard work ahead, and he's excited about the possibilities when he looks around the locker room. He thinks the Patriots have a "tough group" and he raved about the sizable rookie class, many of whom are making big contributions.

"Young guys realize they're professionals. To be young and realize that, that's tough. These guys really do, they know it's a profession, it's their job. They work their tail off," he said. "For me to see that, I feel happy. Here I am seven years into the league, and here is this rookie right with me, working his tail off. It gives me a lot of support on the field."

Listening to Wilfork, and watching the Patriots on the field Thursday while capping off a three-win-in-12-day stretch, one gets the sense that the possibilities for a deep run into the playoffs are real.

"This group we have, it's a special bunch, from the rookies to everybody. Special, special bunch; there is something about them," Wilfork said.

"I haven't put my [finger] on it yet, but there's something about them because when the going gets tough, it seems like we answer the call. The times we didn't, I think a lot of people didn't understand at the time. I think now we're moving in the right direction.

"We're going to need that going forward. It's going to get tougher, and I have all the faith in the world in these guys."

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.