Sure, it was just the Lions, but this victory brought out the best in the Patriots

Bill Belichick was at his best with a third-string quarterback and facing the NFL's highest-scoring offense.

It was all smiles from Bailey Zappe (left) and David Andrews after Sunday's victory. It was all smiles from Bailey Zappe (left) and David Andrews after Sunday's victory.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .

Bill Belichick has often been at his best during his 23 years with the Patriots when something — usually related to the quarterback situation — has convinced us that trouble is ahead.

It happened in 2008, when Tom Brady was lost for the season in the first quarter of the first game, only to have untested Matt Cassel come in and play well enough for the Patriots to win 11 games.

It happened early in ‘16, when Brady was suspended the first four games for the Deflategate nonsense and the Patriots went 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.


And don’t mistake this for any kind of comparison to what is happening now, because Brady’s emergence in ‘01 after Drew Bledsoe’s Week 2 injury is one of the most extraordinary NFL stories ever told … but yes, Belichick did it then too.

And he did it again Sunday. With rookie third-string quarterback Bailey Zappe making his first career start, against a Lions team averaging 35 points per game, the 1-3 Patriots desperately needed a win.

They got more than that. They got an admirably steady performance from Zappe, who was 17 of 21 for 188 yards, a ferocious effort from their shutout-pitching defense, and a reminder that Belichick is still on top of his game, especially against slow-processing quarterbacks like Jared Goff and emotional, tactically challenged coaches like Dan Campbell.

Yeah, say it’s only the Lions if you want. But that was awfully fun.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

With Damien Harris sidelined in the second quarter, Rhamondre Stevenson took advantage, running for a career-high 161 yards.
With Damien Harris sidelined in the second quarter, Rhamondre Stevenson took advantage, running for a career-high 161 yards. MATTHEW J. LEE/GLOBE STAFF

Three players who were worth watching

Players suggested in the Unconventional Preview: Trent Brown, Jonathan Jones, Aidan Hutchinson

Rhamondre Stevenson: Beyond Derrick Henry and last year’s version of Jonathan Taylor, the classic workhorse running back is an endangered species in the NFL. Since his emergence midway through last season as the Patriots’ most electrifying offensive player, it’s been easy to wonder what Stevenson’s numbers might look like with an old-school heavy workload. We found out Sunday when his talented job-share partner, Damien Harris, went down with a hamstring injury in the second quarter, and it went pretty much as we suspected: Stevenson was a force of nature. He juked, spun, cut, and trampled his way to a dazzling 161 yards on 25 carries, both career highs. Stevenson’s most spectacular run was a 49-yarder in the first quarter that he might have taken all the way had Nelson Agholor been able to cut off the path of hustling Lions linebacker Alex Anzalone.


Matthew Judon: He single-handedly affected the score differential by at least 7 points, and probably 10. In the first quarter, his third-and-7 sack of Goff for a 9-yard loss took the Lions out of field goal range. He made an even better play in the second quarter, beating the Lions’ outstanding second-year left tackle Penei Sewell on fourth and 9 — one of the Lions’ astounding six fourth-down failures without a conversion — stripping the ball loose, and then cheering with the rest of New England as Kyle Dugger returned the fumble 59 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 Patriots lead. Judon, who has at least one sack in each of the Patriots’ first five games, wears No. 9. But with the Patriots wearing their spectacular throwbacks Sunday, it would have been fitting for him to wear the retired No. 56, because that was a vintage Andre Tippett performance.

Jakobi Meyers: I’ve always been lukewarm on Meyers, a smart and capable possession receiver but one who probably saw the ball too often given that he is not particularly efficient at catching his targets and wasn’t a threat for yardage after the catch. But Sunday? Now that was impressive. Coming back from a two-week hiatus while recovering from a knee injury, Meyers stepped in as Mr. Reliable for Zappe, catching seven passes on eight targets for 111 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown, which put the Patriots up, 26-0, was Zappe’s longest pass play of the day.

In his first game with Bailey Zappe, Jakobi Meyers caught the rookie's second career touchdown pass.
In his first game with Bailey Zappe, Jakobi Meyers caught the rookie’s second career touchdown pass.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Grievance of the game

Not sure how many more times Nelson Agholor has to give the football away before the Patriots coaches realize he shouldn’t be trusted in the middle of the field. Agholor was responsible for Zappe’s interception, bobbling the ball into Lions safety DeShon Elliott’s hands midway through the second quarter. It’s the third time this season Agholor has given away the ball on a play over the middle. Against the Ravens two weeks ago, safety Kyle Hamilton punched the ball away from Agholor after a 28-yard gain, with Marcus Peters recovering. That blunder happened during a stretch in which the Patriots turned it over four times in five possessions. Agholor also fumbled to essentially end the Patriots’ chances in the Week 1 loss to the Dolphins. The Patriots have committed 10 turnovers this season. Agholor is directly responsible for three of them. Not acceptable.

Three notes scribbled in the margins

It’s easy to forget now, but the Lions moved down the field with relative ease on their second possession, down 3-0. Josh Reynolds had a 22-yard catch, Craig Reynolds ran for 19 yards up the middle, and Justin Jackson also scooted for an 11-yard run on the series as the Lions marched to the Patriots 18-yard line. But rookie cornerback Jack Jones made a spectacular play for the second straight week, leaping to pick off a Goff throw intended for T.J. Hockenson, then tapping his toes at the 3-yard line to stay in bounds. A week after pulling off a pick-6 against Aaron Rodgers, the rookie fourth-round pick again showed some extremely impressive ballhawk skills . . . The Patriots tormented Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah, who among other egregious things committed 22- and 25-yard pass interference penalties against DeVante Parker. Okudah was the No. 3 pick in the draft two years ago, going three spots ahead of Justin Herbert, but has endured several injuries, including a torn Achilles’ last year . . . Did anyone else think it was weird that Lions kick returner Maurice Alexander bolted for the sideline at the end of a 47-yard return rather than trying to truck Patriots punter Jake Bailey, who might have been the last line of defense? It’s not like Bailey has the reputation of tackling like Adam Vinatieri on Herschel Walker or anything.


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