By Mary Paoletti
DETROIT -- Thanksgiving football has been tradition for Devin McCourty for as long as he can remember.
"I think as a kid everybody watches these games. You see guys eatin' turkey legs and all that,'' he said, all smiles, on Thursday.
McCourty had every reason to be especially cheerful this year. It's the cornerback's first NFL season and he's already making his mark in the league.
"Just to be a part of it,'' he explained, "when there's a bunch of people at home watching, including my family, and all the young kids that are watching this game. Hopefully they'll remember when they watched the Patriots and Lions play on Thanksgiving. ''
The memories he'll have of this Turkey Day -- of his Patriots' 45-25 win over Detroit -- will be unique.
Many watching were probably eager to catch the stylings of Detroit's potential defensive rookie of the year, Ndamukong Suh. Despite how far McCourty has come in 12 weeks, how reliable he's been for the now 9-2 Patriots, the young corner hasn't gotten nearly the volume of attention as Suh.
Teammate Brandon Meriweather expected as much.
"Suh's a great player,'' Meriweather said in the postgame. "He's done a lot in this league as a young player and I think Devin came in playing in his shadow. Suh was a higher pick, so you expect more from that higher pick and he gets more of the spotlight.''
Nothing too surprising there. McCourty was a first-round pick but Suh was drafted second overall. And it's Suh's eight sacks -- best among rookies and tied for sixth in the NFL -- that cause a bigger headache for opposing teams. He's a planning nightmare during the week.
But it was McCourty who caused more problems on game day.
He feasted on Detroit's passing game, recording two tackles, two helpers and two interceptions. The Thanksgiving effort only heaped onto his already impressive tallies. McCourty is now tied in the rookie top spot for pickoffs (five) and is second in combined tackles and assists (61).
Talk to him once and you'll be impressed with his competitiveness. It's earnest. McCourty knows he wasn't drafted as a franchise cornerstone like Ndamukong Suh. He also knows that a roster spot with a team like the Patriots had to be earned and that the battle doesn't end when you make it.
"Coming in, one of the biggest things I was nervous was just living up to the expectations of the older guys,'' McCourty said. "You come on the team and you've got Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork and those guys come out and play at a certain level.
"So coming out and playing as a rookie, that was probably the biggest thing I looked at, was to kind of match how they prepared and how they came out. And make sure I was ready to go and not be that weak link on the defense."
The rookie corner should exhale a little bit. Not only is he one of the most important players in New England's defense, but Wilfork is one of his biggest fans.
"We all have high expectations for everybody. But for a rookie, that's special,'' the defensive captain said. "McCourty's been doing a hell of a job. He's been doing everything we've asked him to do and more. He's been making the plays, he's been studying. He's every bit of what you want. He's every bit a New England Patriot. He's so young. To have it that young, that's a gift.
"Suh is a helluva player. Coming out, I thought he was the best defensive linemen and I made a comment that I wished he could play with me,'' Wilfork laughed. "But I'm definitely pulling for my guy.''
McCourty's making a good case to enter the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. He seemed to alter Detroit QB Shaun Hill's targeting on Thursday. Hill's prize receiver, Calvin Johnson, was expected to do damage in this game. He's a monster match up, a 6-foot-5, 236 pound receiver unapologetically dubbed ''Megatron.'' Even on a 2-9 team, Johnson has elevated the Lions to sixth in the NFL in passing.
Entering Week 12, Megatron had 725 yards and 10 touchdowns. He caught just 4 balls for 81 yards on New England's watch. If Hill did throw his way, Patriots corner Kyle Arrington was likely on coverage. When he wasn't? Well, check out McCourty's first interception.
"You gotta beat that guy to the ball. His size . . . he's the biggest and most athletic human I've ever seen,'' McCourty said of Johnson. "As soon as I saw it released and that ball was in the air, I thought, 'I have to jump before he jumps because if we just at the same time I'll just be another clip on his highlight reel.' "
The reel instead is all McCourty: Shaun Hill takes the snap, drops back and looks down Johnson deep right. McCourty sees the pass coming in instead of outside and snatches the ball out of the air.
He ran 23 yards before being pulled out of bounds. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said at his postgame press conference that "Devin's interception was a huge play" and coach Bill Belichick agreed that it "swung the game around.'' No kidding. That pickoff didn't just lead to the touchdown that tied the game at 17-17, it created a major momentum shift in New England's favor.
The final post-interception push? Seven more points for Detroit and 28 for the Patriots.
Ndamukong Suh's notched four combined tackles and a huge sack of Brady on third-and-6. His play wasn't game-changing, though. No, despite the hype, this Thanksgiving Day rookie showdown belonged to Devin McCourty. Not one he's likely to forget.