|Darren Sproles gets a pat on the helmet from Drew Brees after his fourth-quarter touchdown. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)|
Brees, Saints tame Lions
QB remains hot, ignites TD flurry
NEW ORLEANS - It was supposed to be easy for the New Orleans Saints in the wild-card round a year ago.
Just take care of Seattle, which didn’t even have a winning record, and the Saints could start thinking about a serious Super Bowl run.
One problem - Seattle pulled off the upset and the Saints went home and brooded.
Fast forward to last night’s NFC wild-card matchup between the Saints and Detroit Lions, a franchise that had won one playoff game since 1957 and had not been in the playoffs since 1999.
At the half, the Saints trailed, 14-10, which had the sold-out Superdome crowd of 73,038 a little tense. And things remained tense when the fourth quarter began with the Saints’ clinging to a 24-21 lead.
Not to worry. Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who had set a season record for passing yards, was not about to let anything bad happen this time. And neither were the rest of the Saints as they overwhelmed the Lions in the fourth quarter en route to a 45-28 victory that produced a playoff record-tying combined total of 1,038 yards.
The Saints will now travel to San Francisco for Saturday’s NFC divisional showdown with the 49ers.
“If you were watching the game, it was a tale of two halves,’’ said Saints coach Sean Payton. “That’s a really good win for us, especially in the second half.’’
Brees was 33 of 43 for a postseason career-high 466 yards and three touchdowns. And he got plenty of help from his running game, which produced 167 yards. Pierre Thomas had 66 yards on eight carries and Darren Sproles had 51 yards and two touchdowns.
The anticipation for this game was heightened by the fact that Brees and the Lions’ Matthew Stafford combined for more than 10,000 passing yards this season.
Stafford was nearly as impressive as Brees last night, going 28 of 43 for 380 yards and three touchdowns, but he had two interceptions.
Stafford and the Lions wasted little time in establishing their presence, moving 80 yards in eight plays on the opening drive and capping it with a 10-yard TD pass to tight end Will Heller for a 7-0 lead. The drive quieted the crowd.
On the ensuing drive, the Saints started from the 19-yard line and Brees did his job quickly, taking the Saints to the Lions’ 31 in five plays. But on a routine slant pass to Marques Colston, the wide receiver fumbled and the Lions recovered at their 18.
It took the Saints almost a full quarter to get on the scoreboard and they did it mostly on the ground. A 31-yard run by Thomas was the key to an 89-yard scoring drive.
Sproles, the dangerous running back and returner, capped the march with a 2-yard sprint around the right side to tie the game at 7-7 at 14:01 of the second period.
The score seemed to awaken the party/playoff atmosphere in the Superdome.
Faced with that challenge, the Lions returned to basics. Stafford culminated a nine-play, 87-yard scoring drive with a 13-yard TD pass to Calvin Johnson that put the Lions back on top, 14-7, with 9:11 remaining in the half.
Johnson was a monster as usual with 12 catches for 211 yards and a pair of TD receptions in the game.
The Saints countered in the final seconds of the half. They thought they had the game tied as Brees brought them from the New Orleans 11 in a precise drive that appeared to end with a 12-yard TD pass to Colston. But replays showed that Colston let the ball hit the ground as he was tackled in the end zone.
The Saints had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by John Kasay and the Lions led, 14-10, at intermission.
The Saints wasted no time in taking the lead in the third quarter. They took the opening kickoff and moved 78 yards in four plays, with Brees throwing a 41-yard TD pass to Devery Henderson.
And just like that, the Saints had the lead for the first time. When they followed that with a sustained 92-yard, 13-play drive that ended with a 3-yard TD pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints appeared in control.
But Stafford was not about to go quietly. He quickly brought the Lions back into the contest, ending an eight-play, 80-yard drive with a 1-yard rollout sprint into the end zone.
As the game moved into the fourth quarter, the Saints’ 24-21 lead was hardly secure.
But when the Saints countered with their own 80-yard drive ending with a 17-yard TD run by Sproles, it was clear the Lions would not be the ones roaring into next week’s divisional round.
It’s hard to underestimate the embarrassment the Saints felt in losing to a sub-.500 Seattle team last year.
The Saints were not going to let that happen again as they rolled up a playoff record 626 yards of total offense.
“We made the game more than what it was because we lost last year,’’ said wide receiver Robert Meachem, who had four receptions for 111 yards, including a fourth-quarter game-clinching 56-yard TD catch that gave the Saints a 38-21 lead.
“To get this win after what happened last year uplifts the whole team,’’ said Sproles.
Brees, as usual, passed the credit around the locker room.
“The offensive line did a phenomenal job today, as they have all season long,’’ said Brees. “We take great pride in playing like we did today. We’re trying to make our mark with this offense.’’
Brees knows the Saints must kick it up another notch next week against the 49ers. Chances are he will be more than ready.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.