The Detroit Lions jumped out to a fast 28-3 lead and held off a furious rally from the New Orleans Saints to escape the Superdome with a 35-27 win on Monday Night Football. Matthew Stafford threw three touchdowns and completed 22 of 25 passes in the victory.
The Lions got the first real scoring opportunity of the game, reaching the red zone courtesy of a Brandon Browner personal foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Calvin Johnson. Stafford hit Golden Tate for a 2-yard touchdown to open up the scoring. Drew Brees responded with a long 14-play drive, but the Saints stalled out in Lions' territory and settled for a 45-yard field goal by Kai Forbath.
Eric Ebron made the biggest play of the Lions' next drive, taking a 46-yard catch-and-run down to the Saints' 13-yard line. Michael Burton extended the lead to 14-3 with the first touchdown catch of his NFL career.
The Saints had a scare when Brees limped off the field after taking a sack. Brees spent time on the trainers' table getting his foot taped up, but he returned on the Saints' next drive without missing a snap. Meanwhile, Tate scored his second touchdown of the night to put the Lions up by 18 points.
Brees engineered a two-minute drill near the end of the second quarter and hit Brandin Cooks for a perfect pass and catch near the goal line. However, the Saints failed to score due to a bizarre series of plays. Tim Hightower punched it into the end zone on second down, but it got called back by an illegal formation. The Saints went for it on fourth down with three seconds left in the half, but that play got blown dead when Jim Caldwell tried calling a timeout even though he had none left. Finally, Brees hit a receiver for a supposed touchdown, but it got nullified by an ineligible lineman downfield. After all that, the Lions went into halftime with a 21-3 lead.
The Lions scored on their first drive of the third quarter, making things look way too easy against the Saints' defense. Ameer Abdullah ran in 15 yards untouched to make it 28-3 Lions. The rout was on. New Orleans finally found the end zone late in the third quarter with a 27-yard touchdown by Cooks. He also became just the fourth quarterback in history to reach 60,000 career passing yards.
New Orleans went into the fourth quarter with the ball at Detroit's 18-yard line after Brees hit Cooks for a couple more chunk gains. However, Detroit made a big stop on third down and Sean Payton elected to go for the field goal to make it 28-13 in favor of the Lions.
The Saints got a lucky break when Abdullah fumbled the ball away, which was initially ruled down by contact but reversed after a challenge. Brees made it a one-possession game after hooking up with Marques Colston to pull the deficit to eight points, but Stafford answered right back on his next drive. Ebron got the ball down to the 1-yard line and Joique Bell punched it one play later to make the score 35-20. Brees drove the ball back into the red zone at the two-minute warning and hit Benjamin Watson to keep things close, but the Lions recovered the onside kick and bled enough clock to seal the game. New Orleans' final chance with the ball went nowhere.
Three things we learned
1. The Saints' defense remains a tire fire
New Orleans' defense was as comical as it's been this season with blown coverages and bad tackling leading to the Lions doing whatever they wanted -- at one point Detroit scored four touchdowns on four straight drives to blow the game wide open.
The Saints did pull it together to make a few stops and let Brees get back into the game, but they turned back into a sieve late in the fourth quarter, allowing Stafford to retake a two-possession lead. This is a unit that begs for a complete overhaul in the offseason.
2. The Lions are still the Lions, despite the win
Despite a 28-3 lead, the Lions did everything in their power to let the Saints back into this game. It looks like an impressive win on the scoreboard, but if you watch the game you will see all the reasons why Detroit is 5-9, from a leaky defense to bad turnovers to untimely penalties. It was one of the least inspiring wins you'll see this season and Jim Caldwell will almost certainly be looking for a new job in two weeks.
3. Next week's Monday night game might actually mean something!
It's been a rough year for ESPN and Monday Night Football, with the second half of the season plagued by meaningless matchups and no flex scheduling available. While this week's game was fun and surprisingly competitive late, it ultimately doesn't mean much in the bigger picture.
Fortunately, the MNF season finale could go out with a bang with the Denver Broncos (10-4) hosting the Cincinnati Bengals (11-3). The Bengals can clinch both the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win, while the Broncos are trying to hold off the surging Kansas City Chiefs. Real stakes! That's all we've really wanted from our primetime football.