FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – Don’t put all those December games in the win column for the Patriots yet.

The AFC East leaders showed Sunday that a seemingly easy road to the playoffs may be filled with hazards, no matter how much their opponents have struggled.

They barely escaped losing Sunday to Detroit, tied with Oakland for the NFL’s worst record at 2-10, so how could any of their four remaining games be considered a mismatch?

“Every team, I think, from now on out is not going to be an easy game,” defensive end Ty Warren said Monday.

New England is an NFL-best 35-6 after Thanksgiving starting in 2001, including playoff games. That’s much better than runner-up Pittsburgh’s 30-11 mark. But the Patriots only beat the Lions 28-21 on a touchdown with 2:33 left after committing 10 penalties and three turnovers.

The Patriots’ greatest success may have been in proving that all their pregame praise for the Lions wasn’t just empty chatter designed not to disparage an inferior opponent they know they will beat.

Coach Bill Belichick was calm Monday, knowing his players could turn around and play an outstanding game Sunday at Miami. The previous games aren’t necessarily an indication of how the Patriots will do in their last three games at home against Houston and on the road against Jacksonville and Tennessee.

“What difference does it make what happened last week or last month or how many games somebody else won or how many games you won?” Belichick said. “It’s about this week, how to maximize that opportunity.

“Everybody seems to be all worked up about what the team did six weeks ago. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all, but I don’t really see the relevance to this week’s game.”

What may be relevant is that the Patriots’ four remaining opponents have improved their records from early in the season.

Miami was 1-4 after losing their first game against the Patriots but 4-3 since then. Houston is 4-5 after losing its first three games. Jacksonville is 4-2 after starting at 3-3. And Tennessee has beaten Philadelphia, the New York Giants and Indianapolis since opening at 2-7.

The Patriots have won their last three games after dropping two in a row for the first time in four years. But they committed a total of eight turnovers in those wins over Chicago and Detroit.

“We’re happy to be 9-3,” Belichick said. Sunday’s game “really turned quite rapidly there in the last eight, nine minutes.”

The Patriots tied the Lions at 21 with 8:35 left on Corey Dillon’s second touchdown run and Tom Brady’s 2-point conversion pass to Troy Brown. Dillon scored the winning touchdown on a 4-yard run six minutes later.

Detroit, meanwhile, turned the ball over on each of its last three possessions.

Still, the game was in doubt at a point when it probably should have been decided, considering the huge difference in the team’s records.

“Sometimes from outside looking in, you could say that,” Warren said. “but (Detroit’s) guys prepare just like we did and I think giving them opportunities to stay in the game kind of gave them a breath of life, and they were like, “OK, we might be able to pull one out.’ “

For the Lions, it was more of the same. Of their 10 losses, seven have been by seven points or less.

“We strung everything together and made the plays when we needed to,” Warren said.

The last time they did that was when Mike Vrabel intercepted Jon Kitna’s pass with 1:51 to play. Vrabel was woozy after being kneed in the head, and Belichick said Monday, “he’s doing good.”

Rookie running back Laurence Maroney appeared to be a bigger concern. He didn’t return after leaving the game in the first quarter, and the Patriots said he had the wind knocked out of him. He also is “doing good,” said Belichick, who gave no further details of either player’s condition.

An indication of their status for Sunday’s game will come with the first injury report of the week on Wednesday. That’s also when the team will have its first full practice to work on its problems.

“It’s never perfect,” Warren said. “We’re just going to try to get as close to perfect as we can get.”


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