Lions fend off Saints' surge for inspired win

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

New Orleans — In the Lions’ locker room after a 35-27 win over the Saints, defensive end Darryl Tapp told his teammates that quarterback Matthew Stafford had a scope on his arm.

“He was a sharpshooter today,” wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

Sharp hardly begins to describe Stafford’s performance Monday night as he finished with the most efficient game of his career, going 22 of 25 for 254 yards and three touchdowns. As the Lions (5-9) grabbed a 21-3 halftime lead, Stafford threw just one incomplete pass.

For the game, he completed 88 percent of his passes and had a 148.6 passer rating, both the highest marks of his career.

“He’s making us look really good,” right tackle Michael Ola said.

BOX SCORE: Lions 35, Saints 27

Despite how well Stafford played, though, the Lions had to fend off a late rally by the Saints, who scored 17 straight points to cut the lead to 28-20. The Lions scored a touchdown with 5:24 left to keep the Saints at bay, but after Matt Prater missed a 38-yard field goal, New Orleans had nine seconds to try to tie it miraculously.

Considering the Lions lost on a Hail Mary a little more than three weeks ago, at least one player starting thinking about the past.

“That’s the first thing that went through my head,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “I said, ‘Damn, I don’t have time for another one of these Hail Marys.’”

First it was the Bears. Then it was the Eagles. And on Monday, the Lions offense took advantage of another matchup against a poor defense as New Orleans did little to stop them for most of the game.

With the Lions (5-9) already eliminated from postseason contention, the game will serve as another example of an offense that has talent but under-produced for much of the season. Coach Jim Caldwell had no interest in discussing why the offense didn’t play so well for much of the year.

“These guys played well today,” Caldwell said. “I’m giving them credit for what they did today. I’m not looking back down the road. … For us, we’re going to enjoy this one.”

Part of the offensive success was a well-called game by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who mixed the run and pass well as the Lions gained 150 rushing yards, their second highest total of the season.

Stafford also took just three hits, and even though they were all sacks, the offensive line frequently gave him ample time.

“Jim Bob is doing a great job (calling plays),” Stafford said. “And our guys up front are blocking, and when they do that give us time to get the ball down the field or just get through progressions, we’re going to be a good offense.”

Lions grades: Stafford's benchmark game sets winning tone

After a three-and-out to start the game, the Lions scored touchdowns on four straight possessions, including their first drive of the third quarter. The Lions’ 35 points are the most they’ve scored in a prime-time game on the road.

In building a 28-3 lead, the Lions also had an excellent defensive stand at the end of the first half — though it involved some wackiness. On the drive, the Saints had one touchdown overturned on review then another erased by a penalty. Then, Lions safety James Ihedigbo called a timeout despite the team using all three, but ultimately, the Lions stopped the Saints from scoring after they reached the 1.

Wide receiver Golden Tate had six catches for 45 yards and two touchdowns, his second straight game with two scores. Fellow receiver Johnson, meanwhile, had just one catch, but the 19-yarder gave him 1,000 yards for the sixth straight season.

Running back Joique Bell had seven carries for 71 yards, including a 36-yarder that helped the Lions run out most of the remaining time in the fourth quarter. Rookie back Ameer Abdullah had a mostly strong outing with 77 yards on nine carries, including a 15-yard touchdown run.

But, as the Saints tried to make their comeback, Abdullah lost a fumble — after a challenge by New Orleans coach Sean Payton — on the first play of an early fourth-quarter drive, and New Orleans turned it into a touchdown to cut the deficit to 28-20 with about 10 minutes left.

After three straight scoreless drives, the Lions offense found its rhythm again. Tate made a great catch to convert one third down, Abdullah ran for 27 yards to convert another and after an 18-yard catch by tight end Eric Ebron, Bell scored on a 1-yard run to give the Lions a more comfortable 35-20 lead with 5:24 remaining.

For the Saints (5-9), quarterback Drew Brees finished 34 of 52 for 341 yards and three touchdowns. Receivers Brandin Cooks (124 yards) and Willie Snead (76 yards) each had 10 catches.

“I’m proud of our guys because we’re not giving up,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “We have a lot to play for the rest of the season.”