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Detroit — The stars aligned, even if the stats didn't.

But this is what happens to good teams in the NFL. And more to the point, this is what makes a good defense great.

The Lions aren't there yet, but they're gaining ground. And on a day where they gave up far too much of it — more than 400 yards in all to Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints — they stood up when it really counted.

Sunday's fourth-quarter comeback started with the offense, and a 73-yard pass play from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate with 3:38 left. But it was the Lions' top-ranked defense that finished it, sparked by Glover Quin's huge interception and then cemented by a pressure-packed last stand against the Saints' 2-minute drill.

"We got great rush, and the stars aligned, and we were able to make a big play," said Quin, who actually baited Brees into that critical error with just over 3 minutes left and the Saints still clinging to a six-point lead.

The Lions showed a two-high safety look with the Saints facing third-and-9 from their own 29. But Brees had to move in the pocket to avoid George Johnson's roaring off the edge, and after looking left Brees tried to hit Marques Colston over the middle, where Quin was waiting to pounce.

Saints coach Sean Payton called it a "thief coverage," and Brees said he knew it as soon as he threw it.

"I saw him out of the corner of my eye, just as the ball came out," Brees said of Quin, whose savvy play in the middle of the Lions' defense often gets overshadowed. "That's not a good feeling."

For most of Sunday's game, it wasn't for the Lions, either. The offense struggled again without some key playmakers, and the defense was getting flagged when it wasn't getting gouged for big plays — nine of 17 yards or more in the first three quarters.

"But that just goes to show: To be a great team, there's gonna be some adversity," Quin said. "These games build character."

They build confidence, too, if you're lucky. And while the Lions' offense still desperately misses Calvin Johnson, the defense certainly can view Sunday's result as a bit of validation.

Passing the test

They'd built their league-leading statistical profile at least in part on a weak opening schedule, including a three-week run against Geno Smith, Kyle Orton and Teddy Bridgewater.

But this was a legitimate test, facing Brees and a Saints offense that can make life miserable for any defense, even with an injured Jimmy Graham mostly playing a decoy role, as he was Sunday.

"We didn't come in expecting just to shut Drew Brees down completely like last game," Quin said, referencing the eight-sack demolition of Bridgewater and the Vikings on the road a week ago. "But when you're in games like this, worrying about the No. 1 defense or stats — none of that stuff matters. You're just trying to win the game."

They were losing it through three quarters, no question. The Lions were holding their own on third down, but Brees was still 25-of-31 for 325 yards and a pair of touchdowns, good for a 131.9 rating. And at a certain point, with the Saints' up-tempo approach and bunched formations causing problems for the Lions in coverage, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin decided enough was enough.

"We were like, 'Hey, Coach, let us lock up and play these guys,' " Quin said. "Let's stop trying to be in a perfect call or whatever. Let's just line up, let's go play. Line up and hit 'em in the mouth. … He listened."

And the defense responded. The pass rush never quite got Brees to the ground, but his passes sure kept finding it, for one reason or another. Brees completed just 3 of 14 attempts for 17 yards in the fourth quarter, and of his two completions on the final two drives, one went for negative yardage.

With the game on the line on fourth down with 27 seconds left, it was the Lions' second-string front that helped seal it. Darryl Tapp spun his way into the backfield, forcing Brees into an off-balance throw that cornerback Darius Slay knocked away from Robert Meachem.

So, pretty good ending for the Lions, in case you missed it, as many in the sellout crowd of 63,271 did. Fans started filing out after Shayne Graham's 36-yard field goal made it 23-10 with 5:24 left.

"You're down two scores with 5 minutes left, and people had the nerve to leave the stadium," said safety James Ihedigbo, who also had a big day with eight tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery. "You gotta understand the type of football team you have here: You never leave the stadium. Never. Some people had the nerve to do that.

"We're gonna fight. We're always gonna fight. We're going to be resilient. And we showed that today."

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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