Wojo: Lions' win over Saints proves they're for real

Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News
Detroit Lions receiver T.J. Jones yells after a catch in the third quarter.

New Orleans — No sweating it this time, no denying it now. The Lions marched through the Saints as if they know where they’re going, and if any doubts remained about their playoff legitimacy, they’re pretty much squashed.

This was as impressive as it gets, and now it’s as real as it gets. The Lions carved up the Saints 28-13 Sunday, and this time it wasn’t all about Matthew Stafford, although he was brilliant again. It also was about a short-handed defense that smothered Drew Brees, the NFL’s leading passer, in Detroit’s most complete victory of the season.

The 8-4 Lions have won seven of eight and are churning toward their first division title in 23 years. They have a two-game lead over the Packers and Vikings with four games left, including the woeful Bears next Sunday. As the game ended, hundreds of visiting Lions fans worked their way to field level, cheering madly.

Grace under pressure

This was the type of resounding performance that turns a nice, freakish run into something potentially much larger. After all the comebacks, trailing in the fourth quarter every game, the Lions weren’t waiting around against the Saints (5-7), who usually are a pain at home. When the game threatened to tighten with the Lions leading 19-13 and facing third-and-10, Stafford made the play that franchise stars make.

The Superdome was all noise but the Lions were all poise. The Saints were blitzing and Stafford saw it coming and checked into a different play. As a pass-rusher clobbered him, he fired the ball to a wide-open Golden Tate, who dashed 66 yards for the clinching touchdown with 11:38 left.  It was another new play devised by coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, perfectly executed by Stafford, Tate and the offensive line.

Lions' defense picks apart Saints in 4th straight win

Just like that, the Lions silenced the crowd and raised the volume back in Detroit.

“When Stafford’s clicking and we’re calling great plays, it seems a little easier, things are just opening up,” said Tate, who had eight receptions for 145 yards. “We’re not doing anything spectacular, we’re just doing our jobs. We have so many guys that can do so many things in this offense, you can’t guard everybody. Most of the time, when Stafford’s grooving, we’re all grooving.”

Stafford was grooving (and moving) as efficiently as he ever has in a hostile environment. At one point he completed a club-record 13 straight passes, and finished 30 for 42 for 341 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was hit hard a few times, sacked twice, but shrugged it all off.

The receivers were clutch, too, from Tate to Anquan Boldin to Eric Ebron to reserves Andre Roberts and TJ Jones, just re-signed to replace injured Marvin Jones. I’m not saying the Lions are good enough to plug-and-play, but that’s what they’ve been doing, plugging away. Stafford told teammates before the game he felt under the weather, then showed no signs of it.

“We did a nice job of spreading the ball around, and we’re gonna need everybody,” Stafford said. “It’s a battle of attrition at this point. People are dinged up all over the place, and whoever’s ready to play, let’s go play with them.”

They showed a couple blasts of flash, but for the most part, the Lions simply played smart, fundamental football, dominated time of possession and took their points when they could. Matt Prater kicked five field goals — the Lions’ red-zone offense will have to improve — but risk-taking wasn’t necessary.

Quelling the Brees

Nowhere was the plug-and-play approach more apparent than on defense, where the Lions were missing leading tackler Tahir Whitehead to injury, along with the perpetually sidelined DeAndre Levy. Didn’t matter, as defensive coordinator Teryl Austin shuttled safeties to linebacker spots and utilized everyone.

The result was fairly remarkable. The Lions grabbed three interceptions and held Brees without a touchdown pass at home for the first time in 60 games. Josh Bynes, who wasn’t even on the roster five weeks ago, led the team in tackles. Safety Glover Quin played the lead role on defense, directing coverages and picking off a pass.

“We played good, we played fast, we communicated,” Quin said. “Even against Drew Brees, once you take the run out of the picture and they’re throwing the ball, you’re like, shoot, somebody’s gonna get some work. Great, great, great win.”

The Lions made the Saints look scattered, one week after they scored 49 against the Rams. I’ve been saying this for a while but it must be said again: The Lions look like a well-coached team with creative game plans and disciplined play, and much of that has to stem from Jim Caldwell.

The Lions let Brees throw short, but that was it. In a matchup of heralded No. 9s, Stafford used the whole nine yards far more often. He was accurate and tough, again scrambling when necessary, making clutch throws under pressure.

Caldwell smartly downplays the division standings, but the Lions are in command. They already swept the Vikings and face the Packers at Ford Field Jan. 1, and there’s little doubt the finale will have playoff implications. Well, unless the Lions keep growing and evolving and clinch even sooner.

It’s not a fanciful notion anymore. The Lions look ready for a stretch drive that perhaps only they saw coming. After a thumping like this, you can’t deny you’re seeing it too.