Detroit — The one-week reprieve provided by an unexpected victory in the desert proved to be little more than a mirage for the Detroit Lions. Coughing up their third double-digit lead of the season, and surrendering 35 straight points in the process, the Lions fell to the Saints, 35-29, at Ford Field on Sunday.
In what has become a theme for this year’s Lions, it wasn’t a slow start that did the team in. In fact, the game couldn’t have begun any better.
Overcoming a pair of drops to start the opening possession, quarterback Matthew Stafford took advantage of a busted coverage for a 50-yard gain to Danny Amendola. That set up a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie running back D’Andre Swift.
The defense, seemingly building off their turnover-heavy performance a week ago in Arizona, needed one play to get the ball back for the offense. Defensive tackle Danny Shelton got his hands in the passing lane and batted quarterback Drew Brees’ throw. The deflection went up in the air and fell into the waiting arms of cornerback Darryl Roberts.
And the offense needed little time to capitalize on the gift. On the third play after the interception, Stafford connected with receiver Kenny Golladay from 15 yards out to put the Lions up, 14-0, less than five minutes into the contest.
The was the last positive thing you could say about the Lions (1-3) in the first half as the Saints (2-2) rattled off long drive after long drive, scoring four touchdowns before the break.
“It’s never a surprise when you play Sean Payton and Drew Brees,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I think Drew Brees does an unbelievable job of, you know, he’s so efficient with the ball and he’s obviously very accurate. And very calm and poised, so it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
New Orleans got on the scoreboard by dominating in the trenches. During a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive following Detroit’s second touchdown, the Saints converted a trio of third-down plays on the ground, capped by Latavius Murray’s 3-yard touchdown on third-and-goal.
After the Lions’ quickly stalled out on the ensuing possession, the Saints went back to work with a 10-play, 80-yard march. The big play came when Brees connected with star running back Alvin Kamara for a 29-yard gain on fourth down.
Three plays later, Kamara finished the job, knifing in from a yard out to knot the game at 14. Kamara finished with 119 total yards, including 83 on the ground.
“Playmakers (are) going to make plays in situations when it’s needed, and that’s what they did every time they needed a play,” Lions linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “They gave the ball to Alvin and they put the ball in Brees’ hands.”
It looked as if the Lions were set to counter, driving into the red zone behind a remarkable grab by tight end Jesse James — who ripped a sure interception out of the arms of safety Malcolm Jenkins — and a long pass interference call on a throw to Marvin Jones. But on first-and-10 from the 11-yard line, Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson undercut a lazy back-shoulder ball into the end zone intended for T.J. Hockenson.
“Yeah, I wish I just would have thrown it a couple of yards further,” Stafford said. “T.J. did a nice job of scrambling and I just underthrew it.”
Maintaining their momentum, the Saints once again drove the length of the field, needing nine plays to go 80 yards and find paydirt once again. After a 25-yard completion from Brees to Emmanuel Sanders (game-high 93 yards receiving), the Lions were again pummeled by the Saints’ ground game. Four straight handoffs netted 34 yards down to the 2. That set up Brees for his first touchdown toss, a 2-yarder to Tre’Quan Smith.
Brees connected with Smith again before the half. Taking advantage of a short field after a 22-yard punt return set the Saints up near midfield, Smith beat cornerback Desmond Trufant to the back corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown with 50 seconds left on the clock.
Whatever adjustments the Lions made in the locker room didn’t work. The Saints’ offensive onslaught continued into the third quarter with another 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
Showing no respect for Detroit’s defensive front, the Saints opted to run it with Murray on third-and-goal from the 6, only to watch the 230-pound back pound his way across the goal line for his second touchdown of the day.
The score pushed the New Orleans lead to 35-14 with 8:52 left in the third.
“We start fast, we show that we can get up on teams and score points on teams and stop teams,” Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a 60-minute game. So, I mean, yeah, it is frustrating. There’s no other way to say it.”
Detroit finally managed to stop the embarrassing run on the next possession with their own 75-yard scoring drive. The methodical 11-play series was aided by a 23-yard pass interference penalty, once again against Jones. That helped set up a 1-yard touchdown reception from Hockenson, cutting Detroit’s deficit to 35-21 with 4:19 remaining in the third.
The Saints hardly seemed phased by the hiccup, moving across midfield as the third quarter came to an end. But after five consecutive touchdown drives, the Lions finally mustered a defensive stop early in the fourth quarter. The downside; the offense was left to start the their own 2 after an outstanding punt by Thomas Morstead.
Digging out from that hole proved too daunting a task and the Lions quickly found themselves punting the ball back to New Orleans as the clock ticked under 10 minutes.
Still, the Saints struggled to put the Lions away, going three-and-out for the first time and opening the door for an improbable rally.
Despite requiring 12 plays on a disjointed, 43-yard play drive, the Lions got back within a score when Adrian Peterson barreled into the end zone from 5 yards out on fourth-and-1 for his first touchdown in a Detroit uniform. An unexpected 2-point try, converted by Hockenson, made it 35-29 with 3:40 remaining.
But that was the last the Lions’ offense saw the ball. Brees fluttered a 19-yard completion to Smith between layers of the defense to convert a third down. And coming out of the two-minute warning, Kamara converted another third down that allowed Brees to take a knee and run out the clock.
Brees completed 19 of 25 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns.