Playoff preview: Lions-Saints
Although it was a one-touchdown game midway through the fourth quarter, there was never a sense that the Saints were in real trouble. They led 17-0 midway through the second quarter and were up 24-7 at the half. Detroit had a chance to cut the margin to 24-20 but missed a 55-yard field-goal attempt. The Saints answered with a back-breaking touchdown to seal the win.
The Lions believe this game will be different because they'll be at full strength. Last month they were without three starters and a key contributor on defense: tackle Ndamukong Suh (league suspension), safety Louis Delmas (knee), cornerback Chris Houston (knee) and end Lawrence Jackson (thigh). Suh's replacement, rookie Nick Fairley, also was injured in the first half. The Saints were at full strength.
"We'll be in a better position defensive line wise," coach Jim Schwartz says. "We're a team that likes to roll guys through; we don't have anybody that plays every single snap on the D-line, so depth is important to us, [as is] having frontline players and things like that. Obviously Suh didn't play in the game. Fairley had a very, very productive first quarter, had four tackles, a couple tackles for loss, and a sack and then tweaked his foot. Even though he was available to go back in, he wasn't moving very well and wasn't able to [sustain his play]."
Since Thanksgiving they've won by 25, 14, 29 and 28 points at home.
Conversely, the Lions have lost three of their last four road games and were outscored by an average of 35-25 in the defeats. Their only win was a 28-27 thriller at Oakland, in which they overcame a 13-point deficit in the final eight minutes by going 98 yards for the decisive touchdown with 39 seconds to go.
Detroit's biggest issue has been its porous defense. In its last four games away from Ford Field, it has surrendered 37, 31, 27 and 45 points. Some of that can be attributed to the previously mentioned personnel issues, but there also has been a lack of execution. Against the Packers last week, the unit gave up 480 yards and six touchdown passes to backup QB Matt Flynn.
Schwartz says his team has grown over the last month and should be hardened from its time in the fire. "We haven't always played our very best, I don't think any team ever does, but I think we've learned from some of the things that have happened and I think we're a little bit more battle-tested, a little more seasoned," he says. "There's one thing of, you know, learning about something, there's another thing experiencing it first-hand and seeing how it affects the team and things like that. I think that every time we're presented with one of those situations, we've done a pretty good job of doing it better the second time."
New Orleans' Drew Brees not only broke Dan Marino's single-season passing mark with 5,476 yards, but also finished with 46 TDs and only 14 picks. Detroit's Matthew Stafford wasn't far behind with 5,038 yards, 41 scores and 16 picks. What makes the matchup so intriguing is that both appear to be at the top of their games.
In his last two road outings, Stafford has thrown for nine scores with only two picks. That doesn't include the earlier meeting against the Saints, in which he put up 408 yards. Brees has thrown for 14 touchdowns and only three picks in his last three games overall. That doesn't include the previous Lions game, in which he completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 342 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. This could be Fourth of July in January.
"They are going to change," Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan says of the Saints' defensive game plan. "One thing everybody does is, look at that [first] game very close, like we do, and say, 'OK, we showed them this, we brought this look and brought this blitz, we will try to show them the same thing and bring it the other way.' There is always a chess match there and offensively you have to anticipate that. It doesn't mean they won't run the same thing, but we expect the counter. It is a lot like when you play in the division; when you play a team the second time around there are going to be some new wrinkles."
The Saints know that slowing the Lions offense likely means containing Calvin Johnson. Also known as Megatron, the 6-foot-5, 236-pound Pro Bowl wideout started the year with touchdowns in five straight games, including two in each of his first four, and he concluded the regular season in similar fashion, with scores in three straight outings.
Detroit makes no secret about wanting to get him the ball. He was targeted 37 times in the final three games, according to Stats Inc., with 24 going for completions. He went over 200 yards receiving in two of the games and was over 100 in the other.
Following is a breakdown of how often Stafford looks for his star receiver based on the formation, courtesy of Stats Inc.
The game will provide the fireworks that everyone beyond the respective defenses wants. New Orleans will prevail largely because Brees has so many more options than Stafford, whose primary weapons are Johnson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Brees not only has a deep and talented table of receivers, including tight end Jimmy Graham, but also a capable run game that will hurt Detroit when it focuses too intently on stopping the pass. Also, the Saints still have the taste of losing their playoff opener last season, a year after the winning the Super Bowl. They won't make the same mistake twice. Look for them to jump out to an early lead and the Lions struggle to catch their breath after making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.