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Wild-Card Grades: Lions-Saints

Grading out the performances from New Orleans' 45-28 win over Detroit Saturday night in NFC Wild-Card action.

Quarterback: Even with a pair of second-half interceptions, it's hard to pin Detroit's loss on Matthew Stafford in any way. In his first playoff appearance, Stafford came out gunning, driving Detroit to an early touchdown on a hugely impressive opening drive. He finished with four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing), 380 yards through the air and showed the league that he might just be at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he's capable of doing. Grade: B+

Running Backs: This grade almost feels like it should be an incomplete. Heading into Saturday night, it seemed like the Lions would lean on Kevin Smith to milk some clock and help keep New Orleans' offense off the field. Smith wound up getting just six carries on the night and catching two short passes. Detroit ran a couple of end-arounds in the first half but more or less deserted the run game after halftime. Grade: C-

Receivers: Calvin Johnson fell one vote shy of a unanimous selection onto the All-Pro team, and he showed a national audience why Saturday. Despite facing double- and triple-teams, Johnson caught 12 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Titus Young, Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew all chipped in four catches each, while third-string TE Will Heller also reeled in a score. Young's slip on a Stafford deep ball, which led to an INT, was one of the few mistakes from this group. Grade: A-

Offensive Line: For the most part this was a pretty solid performance. New Orleans did not register a single sack on Stafford, despite bringing blitzes regularly. But the line struggled more as the game went on, with Stafford's first interception the direct result of the Saints coming with heavy pressure. Grade: B

Defensive Line: The Lions knew that they'd need a big performance from this unit to pull off the upset. Instead, the line was nonexistent almost all night. Ndamukong Suh could not break through the extra attention he received, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch were neutralized outside and New Orleans ran with authority. The biggest play, a strip-sack of Brees, came from unheralded DE Willie Young. Grade: D

Linebackers: Justin Durant recovered two fumbles and Stephen Tulloch had a team-leading 10 tackles. And that's where the good news ends. Detroit's linebacking corps was front and center all night as the team missed tackle after tackle after tackle. New Orleans rushed for 167 yards, with most of that damage coming straight through the heart of Detroit's D. Grade: D+

Defensive Backs: The Lions managed to hold things together in the first half, as New Orleans put just 10 points on the board. The wheels came off after halftime, though, as Drew Brees smoked the Detroit secondary en route to 466 yards passing. Making matters even worse for the Lions was that they dropped at least two or three potential interceptions, including one by Eric Wright that could have been a pick-6 and another by Aaron Berry in the fourth quarter with Detroit down three. Combined with its Week 17 loss in Green Bay, Detroit allowed 90 points over its final two games. Grade: D

Special Teams: Detroit did as good a job containing Darren Sproles on kick and punt returns as any team could hope for, holding the Saints' diminutive and dangerous sparkplug to a mere four punt return yards and a long of 28 yards on kickoffs. Stefan Logan had an OK day returning kicks, too, for the Lions, though his longest run was wiped out by a block in the back. Grade: B+

Coaching: Detroit could not have asked much more out of the first half -- save for the whistle not blowing early on a Brees fumble, an officiating miscue that may have cost the Lions a defensive touchdown. The Saints' halftime adjustments did Detroit in, though, with New Orleans outscoring the visitors 35-14 in the final 30 minutes (and taking a knee at the 2 in the closing seconds). The offensive game plan was smart, but the defense had no answers. Grade: C

Quarterback: Sure, Brees had the benefit of a couple of dropped picks from the Lions' secondary. But just as a little check-swing blooper looks like a line drive single in baseball's scorebooks, Brees' near-mistakes simply went down as incompletions. And when you check out his final stat line, this is what you get: 33 for 43, 466 yards and three touchdowns. That's flat-out ridiculous. Grade: A

Running Backs: This was arguably the biggest X-factor on the night. The Saints found success on the ground early in the game, then kept the ball rolling for four quarters. When it was all said and done, New Orleans had 167 yards rushing, with a pretty even split between Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. Thomas and Sproles also added three touchdowns between them and 10 combined catches for 89 yards. Thomas, specifically, proved nearly impossible to tackle. Grade: A

Receivers: Marques Colston coughed up a fumble in the first half to kill a drive, and Robert Meachem let a long bomb slip through his hands in the third quarter. Other than that, there was very little the Saints' receivers did wrong. Colston wound up with seven grabs for 120 yards, Meachem 111 yards and a touchdown, and Devery Henderson and Jimmy Graham each found the end zone -- with both of their TDs coming as a direct result of defensive breakdowns by the Lions. Grade: B+

Offensive Line: Both of the Saints' starting guards, Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans, landed on the All-Pro first team, and they showed why against Detroit's deep defensive line. The Saints eliminated Suh, for the most part, and gave Brees time to scan the field. They also paved the way for some big runs from the backs, which provided New Orleans with so much balance that Detroit had no idea what was coming at it from play to play. The one big mistake, letting Young through to force a Brees fumble, cost New Orleans no points. Grade: A-

Defensive Line: The Lions' decision to abandon the run, more or less, made this unit fairly nonexistent in the game. The Saints failed to bring Stafford down -- and let him scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter -- but did create some pressure to disrupt Detroit late. That pressure led to both of Stafford's interceptions in the fourth quarter and helped New Orleans cement the game. Still, against a better running team (like, say, San Francisco), the Saints will need a better effort. Grade: C+

Linebackers: Like the D-line, a fairly quiet group, though they did limit the damage Detroit did with its tight ends and running backs in the passing game. Heller slipped up the seam for the game's first touchdown and Pettigrew had a 22-yard grab, but that was really all this unit gave up underneath. The Saints' LBs did have some trouble dropping back to help on Detroit's receivers, but can you blame them for that? Grade: B

Defensive Backs: This was sort of a case of doing just enough to win. The Saints know their offense is going to score, which allows the defensive backs to play extremely deep in coverage and try to prevent any huge plays. New Orleans gave up nearly 400 yards passing but also picked off Stafford twice and kept Detroit from finding a quick strike when it needed one. Grade: C

Special Teams: A ho-hum day here -- John Kasay was perfect on extra points and hit his lone field goal, while Sproles had a couple of decent returns. The Saints did not punt once in the ballgame. Grade: B

Coaching: Sort of the exact opposite of Detroit's tale. New Orleans struggled to find its legs, on either side of the ball, in the first half. After the break, however, Sean Payton let Brees do his thing through the air. The defense never really solved the Calvin Johnson conundrum, but by eliminating Detroit's ground game and finding ways to get in Stafford's face a little, the Saints' strategy paid off well enough. Grade: B+

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