Pats fall back to earth with a thud

DETROIT -- As good as the New England Patriots looked in their first two preseason games, they looked equally as bad Saturday night in their third preseason contest, a 34-10 loss to the Detroit Lions. The question is what to make of it.

There will be days like this in football. In fact, this was quite similar to the Patriots' third preseason game last year against the St. Louis Rams, which had some similarly troubling signs. We know how that turned out; The Patriots went on to post a 14-2 regular-season record.

So proceed with caution when reading too much into the dismantling that unfolded at Ford Field. At the same time, also consider that maybe there was a little too much optimism based on the first two preseason routs.

This brings it back to the more appropriate middle ground.

What happened Saturday night is that the Lions, who viewed this game as a measuring stick to how far they've progressed in the third year of coach Jim Schwartz's regime, came out like this was their Super Bowl. The Patriots didn't respond accordingly. Quarterback Tom Brady was pummeled early and the rhythm of the offense was never established. The frustration of defenders boiled over on the field as the unit looked disjointed at all levels.

"You've got to be careful the way you look at it," Schwartz said when asked about the lopsided result. "We say a lot of times in preseason that you want to see players win, you don't want to see scheme win. I think we saw some good matchups today and not just our first group against their first group, but a lot of times our two's matched up against their one's on defense, and sometimes some of our three's matched up and we won some of those battles."

Schwartz added that the most encouraging thing to him was that the Lions played mostly man-to-man, and with that, "you throw the score away and look at how the matchups went."

This was the most disappointing aspect of the Patriots' performance. It wasn't anything scheme related, but just man-to-man football, and the roster that has been touted as one of the NFL's deepest was losing much more than it was winning.

It was some of the Patriots' best players, too.

Cornerback Devin McCourty struggled in coverage on multiple high-arching, deep passes. Brady missed easy throws he usually connects in his sleep. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork couldn't generate push inside. Left guard Logan Mankins lost his cool. Receiver Chad Ochocinco went without a catch.

Of all the miscues, the lowest points might have come at the end of the second quarter. Linebacker Jerod Mayo played outside leverage on running back Aaron Brown (who?) on a 9-yard touchdown pass, then turned to safety Patrick Chung to talk to him as if he was supposed to be there to help. It is unusual to see two players argue like that on the field, a sign of a unit unraveling.

Coach Bill Belichick was fuming on the sidelines. Afterward, he pulled no punches.

"There's no question about who was the better team," he said. "I think that, obviously, I did a poor job of having the team ready to play. I don't feel very good about anything we did."

Belichick added that the performance could alter the way he approaches the team's fourth and final preseason game, Thursday at home against the Giants. Brady, for his part, hopes he's playing in the finale that he usually sits out.

"I'd love for us to get out there and play a lot better than we played," said Brady, who was 12-of-22 for 145 yards with one touchdown and one interception, playing all of the first half and one series into the third quarter. "There's a lot of us itching to get back on the field. After days like this, you want to get back on the practice field."

Lions players knew they got to Brady on Saturday night by his actions on the field. All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh led a ferocious charge that knocked the Patriots' offensive line back with force, and had Brady knocked off the spot, running for cover.

"My job is to continue to rattle him, get after him, and be in his face. When he starts yelling at me, like 'leave me alone,' that is when I know I have completed my job," Suh said.

Games like these can sometimes help a team, and that seemed to be what Brady was getting at late Saturday night before the team boarded its plane, en route for Boston's Logan Airport, in hopes of beating the effects of Hurricane Irene.

"Look, it's football," Brady said. "When you make a bad play, you've got to overcome it. There's resiliency that comes into this game and mental toughness. It's all the things you're trying to build on as a team, trying to figure out what kind of team you've got."

What type of team is the Patriots?

Truth is, we don't know. We didn't know definitively after two preseason games, and certainly one bad preseason loss doesn't tell all, either.

This is still a work in progress, and Saturday, by all accounts, was a step back.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.