New Orleans — A tipped pass, the 12th of the game, ended what could have been the greatest comeback in NFL history.
New Orleans Saints end Cameron Jordan got his hands on a pass from quarterback Matthew Stafford at the line of scrimmage, hauled in the deflection in the end zone for a touchdown with a little more than five minutes remaining, ending the Lions’ improbable attempt to rally from a 35-point deficit.
“We knew that he (Stafford) was giving up sacks and that he had a whole lot of passes batted,” Jordan said. “We had to take advantage of that. Did it result in my first touchdown? Yes, it did. Did I enjoy every minute of it? For sure.”
BOX SCORE: Saints 52, Lions 38
It was the Saints’ third defensive touchdown of the game, punctuating a wild 52-38 victory Sunday.
Stafford finished 25-of-52 for 312 yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and two lost fumbles for the Lions (3-3). Marvin Jones Jr. had six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown and Golden Tate hauled in seven receptions for 96 yards and a score.
The scoring frenzy got underway early thanks to an opportunistic Saints defense. Facing a third down deep in his own territory, Stafford couldn’t locate an open receiver. Lingering too long in the pocket searching for an option, he was hit from behind by defensive end Alex Okafor and fumbled the ball. It was recovered by safety Kenny Vaccaro in the end zone to put the Saints up 7-0 with 11:02 left in the first quarter.
The Lions quickly responded when Tate spun out of one tackle and broke two others on a 45-yard touchdown reception to pull even roughly four minutes later.
But the Detroit defense had no answer for the potent Saints offense the rest of the first half. Running back Mark Ingram broke free for a 51-yard carry on the ensuing drive before quarterback Drew Brees found Ted Ginn on a shallow cross that the speedy receiver turned into a 20-yard touchdown.
Ginn got free on his route coming out of a cluster formation and badly juked linebacker Jarrad Davis, turned upfield and dove across the goal line.
After the Lions went three-and-out, the Saints (3-2) added a 41-yard field goal by Wil Lutz to extend their first-quarter advantage 17-7 with nine seconds remaining.
The Lions turned it over again, when the team failed to pick up blitzing linebacker Craig Robertson, who ripped the ball out of Stafford’s hands. With the short field, the Saints needed six plays to travel the 31 yards into the end zone. Ingram capped the series with a 1-yard run to make it 24-7 with 10:46 left in the second quarter.
“I am probably more frustrated at the fumbles than anything,” Stafford said. “I got to be better early on, not turn that ball over, got to find a way to hold on to that ball both times. Keep us out of that situation where we are having to dig ourselves out of a giant hole.”
The Lions' ended run with a 41-yard Matt Prater field goal, only to allow the Saint to drive 75 yards for another touchdown. Running back Alvin Kamara had a 21-yard run and receiver Brandon Coleman added a 20-yard reception to get the Saints into the red zone before Ingram took it in from two yards out to extend the lead, 31-10, with 1:48 remaining before halftime.
The Saints finished the game with 193 yards on the ground, the most the Lions have surrendered since Week 13 of the 2015 season.
“Any time that we allow a team to run consistently on us and run well, we are not happy about that,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “One of the things when we start (game-planning) is being able to stop a team on defense, in terms of the run.”
The Lions had an opportunity to cut the deficit but floundered in the red zone. With a first-and-goal from the 5, Stafford had two passes deflected and a third fell incomplete. On fourth down, he hit Darren Fells on a short throw, but the tight end was dropped feet short of the goal line.
“I’ve just got to stretch out a little bit more,” Fells said.
Things briefly cooled off to start the second half. The Lions punted with the opening possession, but quickly got the ball back thanks to a Darius Slay interception. But the good field position was wasted with a three-and-out offensive series and a missed 56-yard field goal.
The Saints marched 54 yards on seven plays and Brees found tight end Michael Hoomanawanui uncovered in the back of the end zone to give the Saints a 38-10 lead.
That turned into a 35-point edge when rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore took advantage of another tipped Stafford pass, intercepting a wayward deflection and returning it for a 27-yard touchdown to give New Orleans a 45-10 cushion with 8:42 left in the third quarter.
Despite facing a larger deficit than any NFL team had ever recovered, the Lions continued to fight. Stafford connected with Jones deep twice, first a 38-yard bomb down the middle, followed by a 22-yard touchdown down the right sideline to breathe some life into the offense.
After a failed onside kick, safety Miles Killebrew forced Ingram to fumble and the Lions recovered. Stafford took the Lions 61 yards in 11 plays, connecting with Fells for a 22-yard touchdown on a third-and-17.
Special teams and defense kept it going. Rookie Jamal Agnew returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown and defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson picked off Brees near the goal line for another score. Suddenly, the Lions were within seven, 45-38, with 6:47 remaining.
It was Agnew’s second punt return touchdown on the season.
“Whenever we get an opportunity like that, there is no doubt in my mind that we can score,” Agnew said. “Just because our punt return team works really hard. I think we have one of the best punt return units, as a whole, in the league.”
But after forcing the Saints to punt, the Lions were pinned down at their own 1-yard line. After an incompletion on first down, Jordan tipped Stafford’s second down throw for the game-sealing pick-six.
Brees finished 21-for-31 for 186 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, and Ingram rushed for 114 yards and two scores on 25 carries for New Orleans.