NEW ORLEANS -- For two quarters Saturday night the Lions played about as well as they could on defense. They limited the high-scoring Saints to one touchdown, forced two turnovers and made the pocket uncomfortable for quarterback Drew Brees, whose longest completion was 23 yards.
Yet if the Saints have proven anything this season, it's that beating them will require four strong quarters, something the Lions did not have in them. With its running game clicking and Brees in a rhythm, New Orleans dominated the second half en route to a 45-28 victory in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Brees was 16 of 22 for 292 and three touchdowns in the second half and directed the offense to a postseason-record 626 yards. New Orleans' next game is Jan. 14 in San Francisco, where in an NFC divisional-round showdown it'll be strength against strength.
The Saints have scored at least 42 points in four straight games; the 49ers ranked second in the league in fewest points allowed, surrendering just 14.3 a game. The Saints ranked sixth in rushing and scored three times on the ground against the Lions; the 49ers ranked first against the run and did not allow a rushing touchdown in their first 14 games. San Francisco also tied for second with 38 takeaways.
For two quarters Saturday night there were questions whether the Saints, who've now won nine in a row, would be knocked out of the playoffs in the opening round for the second straight year. The Lions were taking away their downfield passing game and their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, was having his way with the New Orleans secondary. He was 14 of 22 for 180 yards and two touchdowns in building a 14-10 halftime lead.
It was all Saints from that point, however, as they scored touchdowns on their first five possessions of the second half to win going away. Brees, who finished 33 of 43 for 466 yards and three scores, with no interceptions, set the tone on his second snap of the half when he found Robert Meachem breaking free 40 yards downfield. He lasered a pass that should have gone for a score, but Meachem allowed the ball to sail through his hands.
Devery Henderson would not make the same mistake two plays later, hauling in a Brees pass for a 41-yard touchdown that gave the Saints a 17-14 lead they would not relinquish.
"In the first half, two things happened," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "They did a good job of possessing the ball, and we had two turnovers."
To a man, the Saints said they made no major adjustments at halftime. They noticed that the Lions were sitting in a zone and not changing their defensive coverages, so that made it easier to attack because they had a better idea of where the stress points would be.
It also helped that the running game was clicking. The Saints averaged 5.9 yards on 14 carries in the opening half, so Detroit had to respect New Orleans' ground game. That opened up play-action opportunities down the field. The Saints finished with 167 yards on 36 carries. Pierre Thomas led the way with 66 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Darren Sproles added 51 yards and and two scores on 10 rushes.
"Balance is key in having success, especially in the postseason" said left tackle Jermon Bushrod. "You've just got to find a way to get the yards, get the first downs. It's not easy, but we have to continue to be as good as we can be up front and give these great running backs that we have the holes that they need."
The Saints are tough to beat when they're one-dimensional with the pass. They're nearly unstoppable when they have both the run and the pass working. And there's no need to show up if you're a defense and you're going to allow them to run and pass while not taking advantage of turnover opportunities.
The Lions led the league in points after takeaways during the regular season with 139. They failed to convert either of their recovered fumbles in the first half into points, and they also dropped at least two potential interceptions.
"That game had everything to do with missed opportunities on defense," said Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "There were three dropped picks that all take points off the board. There were two failed fourth downs (after which the Saints scored). That's it. When you face a team like that, you have to be able to take advantage of those opportunities. You've got to be able to get off the field on third and fourth downs. We were awful on third and fourth downs. We dropped chances to make interceptions."
The Saints converted on 7 of 11 third downs and 3 of 4 on fourth down. In the first half, though, the model of efficiency was Stafford, who was 18 of 22 passes for 180 yards and two scores with no interceptions. He beautifully worked the seams and middle of the field, capitalizing on defensive breakdowns. The only time he looked outside was for quick passes, or if he saw one-on-one coverage on Calvin Johnson, who had five catches for 74 yards and a score in the first two quarters. He had six catches for 69 yards and no scores in the teams' meeting five weeks earlier.
New Orleans struggled to pressure Stafford, who finished 28 of 43 for 380 yards and three scores, with two picks, and when it did get close to him he had the arm strength to throw off his back foot for completions. Conversely, Brees consistently had rushers in his face as the first half progressed. Surprisingly, the Lions did it by rushing just their four down linemen. Midway through the second quarter, that pressure resulted in a sack/fumble that Detroit linebacker Justin Durant recovered. He also recovered a first-quarter fumble by wide receiver Marques Colston.
The second fumble recovery would have gone for a touchdown, but an inadvertent whistle by an official killed the play after the recovery.
Saints fans also were upset with the officials at the end of the first half, when an apparent Colston 13-yard touchdown catch was negated after review because the ball touched the turf at the end of the play. It was the much-maligned continuation rule that requires players to maintain possession of the ball after hitting the ground, even if they appear to have full possession of it before going down.
New Orleans settled for a field goal to cut the Lions' lead to 14-10 at the half, then went 78 yards after the second-half kickoff to lead 17-14. Once they got the lead there was no backing off the gas pedal.
Colston finished with seven catches for 120 yards, Meachem had four for 111 and a touchdown, Henderson had two for 64 and a score, and tight end Jimmy Graham had seven for 55 and a touchdown. Couple that with a ground game that averaged 4.6 yards a carry and tallied three touchdowns and you have the making of the league's hottest team.
On to San Francisco.