For the very first time in my brief sports writing career, I don’t know where to begin. First, I should start by saying that the 45-28 drubbing the Saints put on the Lions seemed a lot closer than the score for much of the game.
The result just doesn’t seem right. Yes, the Saints were the better team on Saturday night, converting five of six second half drives into touchdowns and taking their sixth down to the one yard line before kneeling out the clock. Their offense looked truly elite, racking up a postseason record 626 yards.
But many of those yards were given rather than taken. Detroit’s defense failed to adapt to New Orleans’ gameplan, and turned a 14-10 halftime lead into a 17 point deficit. The Saints reversed the turnover battle as well, going +2 in the second half after Detroit forced two first half turnovers of their own.
Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham refused to mix up his defense, bringing four pass rushers on almost every down. Saints quarterback Drew Brees picked up on that quickly, and lit up the Lions for 466 yards and three touchdowns.
In the end, the Lions’ offense couldn’t keep up with Brees and the Saints. While Matthew Stafford threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns, it wasn’t enough to top the high-powered Saints attack.
Wideout Calvin Johnson had a monster of a night, setting a record for most receiving yards in a playoff debut with 211. Johnson caught two touchdowns from Stafford, who added to his three touchdown passes with a rushing TD as well.
The game was filled with turning points, all of which went the Saints’ way. New Orleans picked up three critical fourth down plays, including a fourth-and-inches where Brees jumped over the pile, stretched the ball out across the first down line, then retracted it on his own. The officials gave Brees and the Saints a fresh set of downs, but in my opinion, Brees retracted the ball without contact, and should have been spotted where the ball finished.
Think about it this way: a punt returner catches a punt and begins running backward on his own. If tackled, the ball will be spotted at the point where the defense made contact, not where he began to run backward. But I digress.
The officials certainly will take a fair share of criticism from the Lions faithful, as they made a questionable call or two, and didn’t make a fair share of calls that merited flags. The Saints’ offensive line played like the Pro Bowlers they are, but were certainly guilty of more than one hold, however none were called.
Unfortunately for Detroit, blaming officials gets the team nowhere. The real problem was the defense. The defense forced the Saints to punt exactly zero times during the game, and couldn’t get off the field on third down all night. Brees was able to convert on 7 of 11 third down plays, and kept the Lions’ defense on the field for a whopping 81 plays.
Brees was solid all night, but when he did make mistakes, the Lions were unable to capitalize. One mistake the Lions did capitalize on was a first half fumble that might have gone for a touchdown if an official hadn’t mistakenly blown the play dead. Brees made three bad throws, all three of which should have been intercepted, but corners Eric Wright and Aaron Berry were unable to make the catches. In Berry’s case, twice he had an easy pick, and twice came up empty.
Watching the clock run down in the fourth quarter was a sad (and not fitting) end to the best season the Lions have had this millennium. They had a great run, but their inability to beat the good teams was ultimately their demise.
With this experience the Lions will continue improving, and the first step should be firing Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham’s playcalling in the second half was pathetic, and I believe his time in Detroit is over.
While this loss is tough to swallow, the Lions have a roster chalked full of young talent, and will make many playoff appearances in the coming years. Continue improving, and the Lions may even find themselves winning a playoff game one of these days.
Keep your heads up and keep playing tough football, it has been a lot of fun to watch.