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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Similar play will dash dreams of another title

FOXBOROUGH -- It was a messy, lurching 60 minutes of football. No rhythm. No flow. Lots of turnovers, penalty flags, and injury timeouts. The teams combined for three turnovers in a six-play sequence in the middle of the fourth quarter. New England ran off five plays of offense in the entire third period. Against the Lions. If you'd paid $750 for Fred Smerlas's luxury package, you might have questioned the investment.

The Patriots beat the moribund Detroit team, 28-21, yesterday, but there wasn't a lot of happiness in Bob Kraft's playpen. Sure, the Patriots are glad to be 9-3 and the schedule features a couple more layups between now and January, but this is when the Patriots are supposed to be playing their best football and they are not playing good football.

New England turned the ball over three more times yesterday and added 10 penalties which cost 72 yards. They allowed a safety and found themselves trailing the awful Lions with less than nine minutes left.

"Everything was very average," said quarterback Tom Brady, who was picked off once. "We turned the ball over, the safety, penalties. It was ugly."

The sloppy win came on the heels of last Sunday's five-turnover victory against the mighty Bears. Coach Bill Belichick spent the next six days reminding his people to take care of the football, but the young men appeared not to have been listening. Ben Watson and Patrick Pass put the ball on the ground yesterday. That makes for eight turnovers in two weeks. At home. Need we remind you that the Patriots were beaten in the playoffs in Denver last year on a night when they turned the ball over five times?

After crushing his troops in practice all week, Belichick went easy on his lads when he took to the podium after almost losing to Detroit.

"An exciting ending for us," he started. "Give our guys credit for stepping up and making the plays we had to make."

The savvy media throng immediately recognized Bill was not in the mood to reveal any truths and with Belichick still at the podium -- just getting started taking questions -- the room emptied more quickly than the Laugh Factory during a Michael Richards standup routine.

We're pretty sure Belichick will be less enthused with this win when he addresses his players today. Veteran captain Tedy Bruschi knows the score.

"From week to week, we always work on something we need to improve," said the lion-hearted linebacker. "Now we've got a lot of things to work on. We wanted to play better today. It doesn't matter what the other team's record is. You are concerned. You don't want to see those kinds of mistakes. It's crunch time now. This is two weeks in a row. We'll take this as a victory, but when we look at it tomorrow, we know there's a lot of work to do."

The Patriots have a difficult game against the improving Dolphins next week. Going on the road might help. New England is undefeated away from home in 2006 and hasn't put together four strong quarters in any game at Gillette.

They all know the turnovers have to stop.

"As a football player you are your own worst critic," said Pass, who was thrust into action when rookie flash Laurence Maroney left in the first quarter with what was laughingly labeled "getting the wind knocked out of him." Maroney apparently never got his wind back. He did not return and his replacement's fumble led to a Detroit field goal.

"It happens. I was being careless and the ball came out," said Pass.

Fullback Heath Evens did not fumble, but he missed a block that resulted in a Brady sack in the end zone. A mental turnover.

"I cost us 5 points," said Evans. "I didn't make my block on the goal line and that cost us 2 and then they kicked a field goal when we gave them the ball back. I take full responsibility. I'm ticked. I am upset about my play and how it cost the team. If I do that against a team like Miami or the Bears, it could cost us the ballgame."

Brady made no attempt to sugarcoat matters.

"For so much of that game, we didn't play with energy or enthusiasm," he said. "We had a great week of practice, but it comes down to execution and we didn't execute. We just couldn't find any rhythm today."

What about the turnovers, Tom? We all know that was the message of the week. How could it have happened again? Against the Lions? At home?

"That's such a point of emphasis for us," Brady said. "We're still struggling with it and we've got to find ways to do it better. There's four games to go. Everything's ahead of us. This is the last quarter of the season and we've got to figure out a way to play our best football now."

It's hard to complain about 9-3. The Patriots at this hour have a good chance for a first-round bye in the playoffs. But New England fans are accustomed to seeing better football at this time of year. The fans know what the coach knows. And what the players know.

The turnovers have to stop.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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