The Detroit Lions have waited 12 long years for the anticipated return to the playoffs could be a short stay if its defense duplicates its most recent performance.
The ascending Lions face a second consecutive tough assignment in the form of the high-flying and high-scoring New Orleans Saints, with the two prolifically pass-efficient clubs set to square off Saturday in the Superdome in an NFC First-Round Playoff that figures to deliver no shortage of offensive fireworks.
Detroit ended over a decade's worth of frustration by breaking through with a 10-6 record over the course of the regular season, the long-suffering franchise's highest victory total since 1995 and first winning mark since 2000. That restored prominence came about in large part due to a dangerous offense that established franchise records for total yards (6,337), passing yards (4,814) and points (474) in a single year, with rising-star quarterback Matthew Stafford producing only the fifth campaign of over 5,000 yards through the air in NFL history.
But as good as the Lions were on that of the ball, they'll still be entering Saturday's high-stakes tilt as the statistically-inferior unit. That's because the Saints generated more total yards than any team ever in matching the similarly-potent 2009 Super Bowl champion squad for the most pre-playoff wins in a season by the organization.
The 2011 Saints accumulated an astounding 7,474 total yards and 5,347 net passing yards en route to their 13-3 record, eclipsing the 2000 St. Louis Rams of the famed "Greatest Show on Turf" era for the most in league annals for a season. Most of the damage came on the deadly-accurate right arm of quarterback Drew Brees, with the fiery veteran racking up 5,476 yards over the 16-game schedule to shatter Hall of Famer Dan Marino's NFL standard that had stood for 27 seasons.
Brees threw for over 300 yards for the seventh straight contest to help New Orleans close out its banner regular season with a bang. Last Sunday's 45-17 shellacking of the Carolina Panthers was the Saints' eighth win in a row, and the team established a new single-game high with its 617-yard outburst.
New Orleans has recorded over 435 yards of offense in each of its last six triumphs, including a 438-yard display in a 31-17 besting of the Lions at the Superdome on Dec. 4. Brees ended that night with 342 yards and three touchdowns and no turnovers while completing a crisp 26-of-36 attempts.
"I think we're playing with momentum right now," said Saints head coach Sean Payton when asked if his team is in the midst of its best stretch of his six- year tenure as head coach. "I think we've gotten some takeaways here and we have some key stops [on defense]. I would avoid the blanket statements like that. I would say this season we're playing as good as we [ever] have."
The Lions had rebounded nicely from that Week 13 setback in New Orleans by ripping off three straight wins to officially end their playoff drought, but had a rougher time in last Sunday's finale at NFC top seed Green Bay. The Detroit defense was lit up for 480 yards and a Packers-record six touchdown passes by talented reserve signal-caller Matt Flynn as the reigning world champions came out ahead in an action-filled 45-41 thriller that dropped the Lions into the conference's sixth and final playoff position to set up Saturday's daunting matchup.
"Well, we obviously have to play better than [Sunday] if we want to advance," Lions head coach Jim Schwartz stated on Monday. "You can't ignore it. It certainly happened. I've been a part of times when you've had an effort like that and you just say, 'Hey, that wasn't us,' and you move on; but I think there's obviously things that we need to improve on, including getting some players healthy and getting guys back on the field."
The Lions were without three key defenders, most notably difference-making tackle Ndamukong Suh, in last month's loss to the Saints. The 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year sat out that game serving a league-issued suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct, while cornerback Chris Houston and free safety Louis Delmas were sidelined by knee injuries.
Houston has since returned, while Delmas is on track to play for the first time since late November as Detroit gets a second crack at a New Orleans outfit that's gone 8-0 at home this regular season and has averaged a sizzling 41.1 points per game at the Superdome.
The Lions have done their share of scoreboard-lighting as well as of late. Detroit put up at least 34 points for the third time in four weeks in its shootout with the Packers, with Stafford amassing a career-high 520 yards and throwing for five touchdowns and star wide receiver Calvin Johnson registering a personal-best 244 yards and his 16th scoring catch of the season on 11 grabs.
New Orleans took an 11-9-1 lead in its overall series with Detroit by virtue of three consecutive wins in the set. In addition to the previously-noted result at the Superdome last month, the Saints came through with a 45-27 home triumph of the Lions in the 2009 regular season opener and also routed Detroit by a 42-7 count at Ford Field in 2008. The Lions last topped the Saints in a 13-12 squeaker held at San Antonio's Alamo Dome in 2005 and haven't won in New Orleans since a 14-10 verdict on Sept. 3, 2000.
Payton has come out on top in all three of his previous meetings with the Lions as a head coach, while Schwartz fell to 0-2 all-time against both New Orleans and Payton with the Week 13 loss.
Payton sports a 4-2 composite record in postseason games, with the Saints having gone 3-0 at home in the playoffs under his direction.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
One of the few teams that can match the Saints' offensive firepower, Detroit ended the regular season fourth in the NFL in both points scored (29.6 ppg) and passing yards (300.9 ypg) and enters the playoffs on a tremendous roll, with Stafford (5038 passing yards, 41 TD, 16 INT) compiling a stellar 14-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the final four games and averaging 428 passing yards in the Lions' last three tests. Johnson (96 receptions, 1681 yards, 16 TD) has certainly made his presence felt during the stretch run as well, with the incomparable wideout eclipsing 200 receiving yards twice in a three-week span to close out the regular season while averaging an eye-popping 23.3 yards per catch. He was held reasonably in check by the Saints in the first meeting, with New Orleans routinely employing double coverage throughout the evening, but Stafford was able to connect with several secondary targets en route to a 408-yard effort in the loss. Nate Burleson (73 receptions, 3 TD) was the primary beneficiary of the Saints' determined focus on Johnson, who wound up with a modest 69 yards on six catches, with the veteran wide receiver tying a season high with 93 yards on five grabs, while running backs Kevin Smith (356 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 7 total TD) and Maurice Morris (316 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 2 total TD) were both utilized often as options in the passing game on a night in which Stafford completed throws to 10 different players. Smith turned into a solid all-around contributor after being brought in as a midseason replacement for injured speedster Jahvid Best, and the fourth-year pro seems to be over a nagging ankle sprain that limited his touches late in the year.
Though Stafford's yardage total would indicate otherwise, the New Orleans defense actually had a pretty effective outing in last month's win over the Lions. Coordinator Gregg Williams' crew surrendered just seven first-half points to help stake the Saints to a comfortable early lead while holding Detroit to only a 2-of-11 conversion rate on third downs for the game, and his usage of free safety Malcolm Jenkins (76 tackles, 1 sack) alongside top cornerback Jabari Greer (72 tackles, 1 INT, 18 PD) was successful at keeping Johnson relatively under wraps. New Orleans was also able to apply consistent pressure on Stafford with frequent blitz calls from the always-aggressive Williams, with those tactics resulting in three sacks and an interception of the standout young quarterback. The Saints possess one of the best pass-rushing defensive backs in football in strong safety Roman Harper (96 tackles, 7.5 sacks), the team leader in sacks, while veteran end Will Smith (35 tackles, 6.5 sacks) is a proven performer in that area and will be leading the push up front. Williams' gambling tendencies have been known to backfire at times, however, as evidenced by the league-high 14 passing plays of 40 or more yards the Saints allowed during the regular season, and the team's overall sum of nine interceptions was tied for the third-fewest in the NFL.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
A record-setting offense that gained at least 435 total yards in all but three games during the regular season and scored 40 or more points in five of the team's eight home tests has unquestionably been the driving force behind New Orleans' playoff march. And there's no debate that the group's catalyst has been Brees (5476 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT), who broke his own league record for season completion percentage (71.2 pct) in addition to smashing Marino's longstanding yardage mark and topping the NFL in touchdown passes. The Pro Bowl marksman has expertly distributed the football to a bevy of quality pass- catchers in engineering the Saints' lethal aerial assault, which contains three players that pose considerable matchup problems for enemy defenses in incredibly-athletic tight end Jimmy Graham (99 receptions, 1310, 11 TD), 6- foot-4 wideout Marques Colston (80 receptions, 1143 yards, 8 TD) and short- statured running back Darren Sproles (603 rushing yards, 86 receptions, 9 TD), whose versatility and explosiveness have made the offseason addition an invaluable part of the offense. Wide receiver Robert Meachem (40 receptions, 6 TD) brings another big-play element to the fold and came through with a 67-yard touchdown catch in the Week 13 win over the Lions, and the former first-round pick may be in line for increased snaps this week with steady slot man Lance Moore (52 receptions, 8 TD) appearing doubtful to play due to a hamstring pull. Sproles is the headliner of a deep running back corps that's enabled New Orleans to rank an overlooked sixth overall in yards gained on the ground (132.9 ypg), with bruiser Chris Ivory (374 rushing yards, 1 TD) having taken over as the main rusher with help from the dependable Pierre Thomas (562 rushing yards, 50 receptions, 6 total TD).
Detroit's defense was predictably picked apart by Brees in these teams' regular-season encounter, but could very well fare better in the rematch with a trio of important starters that sat out that game back ready to go. Delmas (51 tackles) and Houston (54 tackles, 5 INT, 14 PD) represent significant upgrades on replacements Chris Harris (29 tackles, 1 INT) and Alphonso Smith (28 tackles, 3 INT), while the surly Suh (36 tackles, 4 sacks) is one of the game's premier interior disrupters and an integral part of a formidable pass rush that will be counted on to make a big impact on Saturday. The second-year tackle provides a strong inside push to complement the edge-rushing skills of unheralded end Cliff Avril (36 tackles, 11 sacks, 1 INT) and high-motor counterpart Kyle Vanden Bosch (35 tackles, 8 sacks), a duo that has combined for 19 sacks and 10 forced fumbles this season and helped the Lions rank near the top of the league in takeaways (34). Detroit also held foes to a mere 32.7 percent success rate on third downs, the third-best figure in the NFL, but was just 23rd in run defense (128.1 ypg) and gave up a troubling 5.0 yards per carry over the 16-game schedule. Physical middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch (111 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and weakside starter DeAndre Levy (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) are the team's top two tackles who will also be asked to play sound and disciplined coverage against the Saints' excellent contingent of receivers out of the backfield.
Two of the NFL's most established kickers will be on display in this one, with 42-year-old John Kasay handling those chores for the Saints and 41-year-old Jason Hanson the lone remaining member of Detroit's last playoff entry. Both can still get it done at their advanced age, as Hanson knocked home 24-of-29 field goal tries and went 5-of-7 from 50 yards or beyond in his 20th season as a Lion and Kasay (28-of-34 FG's) finished second in the league with 147 points, though the veteran lefty was a shaky 7-of-13 on field goal attempts of 40 or more yards.
The Saints own a big advantage in the punting department, with the strong- legged Thomas Morstead (48.3 avg.) placing second in the NFL in net average (43.1) and Detroit rookie Ryan Donahue (42.7 avg.) winding up next-to-last in that category (35.6). Morstead is also an asset on kickoffs, producing a league-high 68 touchbacks over the course of the year.
Sproles was also a weapon in the return game, with the diminutive dynamo ranking fourth in the NFC in kickoff runbacks (27.2 avg.) and taking a punt 72 yards for a touchdown in the season opener at Green Bay. Detroit's Stefan Logan put up solid numbers (25.2 avg. on KR, 8.1 avg. on PR) as the Lions' return specialist, but also had six fumbles and lost two over the club's 16 games. Neither team was good in kick coverage this season, but the Saints allowed a league-low 118 punt-return yards while Detroit permitted a troublesome 13.4 yards per attempt.
Last week's shoddy defensive display may have been a harbinger of things to come for the Lions, as Brees and his band of skill players have been virtually unstoppable on the fast Superdome turf during their march to an NFC South title and had their way with their opening-round opponent just over a month ago. And there's no chance of New Orleans taking Detroit lightly either, not with the painful memory of an upset loss to a 7-9 Seattle team during last year's Wild Card weekend still fresh in the Saints players' collective minds. Both passing attacks will click with considerable potency, but the more-experienced Brees will be a bit sharper than the fresh-faced Stafford and New Orleans' often- overlooked ground game will be a factor as well. The Saints simply have too many weapons for a Detroit squad that has its flaws will be able to handle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 41, Lions 24