BOSTON – Fumble, punt, fumble, interception, fumble.
That’s how the New England Patriots started their exhibition game Thursday the Lions at Detroit.
It wasn’t the back end of the roster playing for a spot on the team, either. These were the starters playing the first half of what is considered the most important tuneup of the preseason:
“Our message has been the same here from Day 1, that ball security is of the highest priority for anybody that handles the ball,” Coach Bill Belichick said in a conference call with reporters on Friday.
“There can be no mistake about that message. That message has been delivered ad nauseam.”
Belichick did not comment on why third-string quarterback Tim Tebow, who was 5 of 19 for 54 yards in the first two exhibition games, did not play. After the game Thursday night, he said, “Because I only played two quarterbacks.”
Asked why Pro Bowl defensive lineman Vince Wilfork did not play, Belichick said, “Because there were other players who played.”
But not very well.
The Patriots moved the ball well on the opening drive before tight end Zach Sudfeld — who is expected to play a key role in replacing the imprisoned Aaron Hernandez — fumbled at the Lions’ 10 yard-line. Detroit drove to the New England 5 before kicking a field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
The Patriots went three-and-out on their next possession and then got the ball back on a punt at their own 13. A penalty pushed them back, and they were at the original line of scrimmage when Brandon Bolden coughed up the ball.
The Lions couldn’t move the ball before missing a 31-yard field goal. But it wouldn’t be long before New England would turn the ball over again.
On the fifth play of the next possession, Brady threw the ball into coverage and it was picked off by Chris Houston. Four plays later, Matt Stafford hit Tony Scheffler on a 9-yard touchdown pass that made it 10-0.
After the kickoff, the Patriots managed just two plays before Shane Vereen fumbled on his own 6. Four plays later, it was 13-0.
“We didn’t do anything in the first half other than turn the ball over,” Brady said. “You aren’t going to score in this league unless you can string a bunch of plays together. We could never get more than a couple plays in a row before we shot ourselves in the foot.”
The turnovers didn’t just cost the Patriots a meaningless game; it may have kept them from working on what they needed to see in the penultimate exhibition game: According to ESPN.com, Vereen and Bolden never got back on the field.
“Was it sending them a message?” Belichick said, repeating the question. “I think that message has been delivered on a daily basis since we started practicing back in May. I don’t think there are any new revelations about that message. Ball security is very important to anybody who handles the ball, in any situation. There can be no mistake about the importance of it.”
The Patriots, who won their first two exhibition games, will play the New York Giants at home Thursday in their final tuneup, then open the season against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 8.
“We had a couple of good weeks against Tampa and Philly. We had some good practices, and then we have a week like this, when you figure out we aren’t anywhere near where we need to be,” Brady said. “If we are going to kick off in two weeks, we are going to have to play a lot better than this. That’s a good lesson for all of us. I don’t care who you are. It’s the NFL. It’s a very humbling game.
“And if you don’t bring it every single night, every week, you are going to get your butt kicked.”