For all the arm talent Matthew Stafford has displayed in his seven NFL seasons, it was his efficiency and decision-making that sparked the Detroit Lions to a big lead and helped prevent them from squandering it.
Stafford completed 22 of 25 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns, and the Lions held off a late surge by New Orleans to defeat the Saints 35-27 on Monday night.
“The guy was phenomenal. He was chasing perfection,” said Lions receiver Golden Tate, who caught two short touchdown passes. “We rallied around that.”
Detroit (5-9) raced to a 28-3 lead, but Drew Brees threw a pair of touchdown passes – one shortly after a Lionsfumble – to help New Orleans (5-9) pull to 28-20 with about 10 minutes left.
Brees passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the fourth quarterback to surpass 60,000 yards in a career while also eclipsing the 4,000-yard mark for the 10th straight season. Brandin Cooks made a career-high 10 catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
But New Orleans’ loss guaranteed consecutive losing seasons for the first time since Sean Payton became coach in 2006.
Brees injured his right foot in the second quarter but never missed a snap. He said he would have an MRI on Tuesday.
“I don’t know what exactly we’ve got going on here,” Brees said of his injury. “It was getting stiff, but we were able to manage.”
The Lions’ last-ranked running game accounted for 150 yards and two TDs against New Orleans’ last-ranked run defense, with Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell each scoring a TD and rushing for more than 70 yards.
Not one of Stafford’s touchdown strikes went for more than 5 yards, but he was poised, accurate and did not turn the ball over.
“Obviously, if you complete 88 percent, that’s rare,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It’s very difficult to do that versus air. He was huge for us and spread it around quite a bit.”
Still, both teams took turns making the kinds of mistakes that losing teams do, producing a close game after it initially looked as though Detroit might run away with it.
“They got off to a fast start,” Brees said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t match them step for step. But I’m proud of the way our team fought down the stretch.”
The Lions led 28-3 when Abdullah scored on a 15-yard run around the left end in the third quarter. New Orleans responded with Brees’ 27-yard touchdown to Cooks and further closed the gap on Kai Forbath’s field goal after theLions made a stop on a third-and-goal from the 4.
But Abdullah fumbled on Detroit’s next play from scrimmage, and the Saints capitalized with Brees’ 11-yard scoring strike to Marques Colston.
Detroit looked ripe to self-destruct, but instead put together a clutch scoring drive that included Abdullah’s 27-yard run and Bell’s short rushing TD.
“We knew we had to stay on the field and be able to score points,” Stafford said. “You play Drew Brees in this place, it’s like an NBA basketball game. You know they are going to make a run.”
Brees’ late touchdown to Ben Watson closed the gap with 1:55 left, but New Orleans’ onside kick was recovered by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, and the Lions marched deep into Saints territory before Matt Prater missed a field goal with 9 seconds left.
The Lions led 21-3 by halftime on Tate’s touchdown catches of 1 and 5 yards and fullback Michael Burton’s first career touchdown from 4 yards out.
The Saints thought they had a touchdown three times on their final drive of the first half but came away with nothing.
First, Cooks made a spectacular one-handed catch of Brees’ 28-yard pass and was initially ruled to have scored, but the call was changed after a video review, marking Cooks down at the 1.
Soon after, running back Tim Hightower found the end zone with a second-effort run, but New Orleans was flagged for illegal formation, with officials saying lineman Senio Kelemete failed to report as an eligible tight end. On fourth down, Brees hit Colston at the goal line, but New Orleans was flagged for an illegal man downfield, ending the half.
The Saints asserted that Kelemete reported on the play before he was flagged and should not have had to report again.
“Tough scenario there at the end of the first half where you feel like you have a touchdown,” Brees said. “I’m sure there will be explanations and maybe apologies about that.”