January 08, 2012

Saints pile on more points, yards in defeat of Lions

But not here at the Superdome. And certainly not now.
Not after the New Orleans Saints opened the NFC playoffs with a record-setting display of offense in a drag race of a 45-28 victory against the Detroit Lions in a wild-card matchup on Saturday night.
Riding the golden arm of quarterback Drew Brees, who torched the Lions for 466 yards and three TDs, the Saints served notice that after the NFL witnessed them become the most prolific offense in the league's 92-year history during the regular season, there is more to come in the playoffs.
The Saints set a postseason record with 626 yards and tied the record with 34 first downs. They scored 35 points after halftime. And never punted. Perhaps the outburst should come as little surprise after they chalked up 7,474 yards in the regular season, shattering the previous mark by nearly 400 yards.
"It seems like every week, something spectacular happens," said tight end Jimmy Graham. "But it's not about the records. None of these records are going to matter if we don't end up in Indianapolis, hoisting the (Super Bowl) trophy."
Advancing to a divisional playoff at San Francisco on Saturday, the Saints are a step closer to that end-of-the-rainbow goal because they stayed true to themselves — bold, aggressive and precise — when it mattered most.
On back-to-back drives in the second half, coach Sean Payton went for it on fourth down . New Orleans converted both times, then finished the drives with touchdowns.
"We were pulling out all the stops," said Brees. "We're not going to apologize for that. We are not going to pull the reins back. We're pedal to the metal. There are times when we're going to need to make plays and make gutsy calls, and we have to make them work."
The first truth-or-dare call came with the Saints facing fourth-and-1 on their own 38 in the third quarter. Leading 17-14 after Brees connected with Devery Henderson for a 41-yard touchdown on the fourth snap after halftime, Payton bucked conventional wisdom by going for it while in his own territory.
Brees took the snap, jumped into the subsequent pile, reached out with the football to cross the 40-yard line, then tucked it back. First down. Three plays later, he hit Marques Colston (7 catches, 120 yards) for a 40-yard strike that set up a 3-yard TD throw to Graham.
On the next Saints possession, after Detroit answered with an 80-yard TD drive, Payton had a decision on fourth-and-2 from the Lions' 40. He called for a toss play to Darren Sproles, who scooted around left end for 3 yards.
Four plays later, Sproles exploded through a huge hole up the gut for a 17-yard TD run that seemingly opened the gates to a rout. On the first snap following the kickoff, Jabari Greer intercepted Matthew Stafford. Then Brees cashed in with a 56-yard touchdown throw to Robert Meachem for a commanding 38-21 lead.
Those fourth-down conversions, after the Lions had seemingly stopped drives, set the tone for the Saints' furious finish … or at least pushed a tired defense over the edge.
One drive went 13 plays and 92 yards. The next one covered 80 yards and 14 plays. Together, they consumed 12 minutes, 42 seconds.
"Those are big drives." Brees said. "Not only are we moving the ball, but you're resting the defense, and you're chewing up the clock."
Then again, the Saints were equally adept at quick-strike blows in the second half. The TD throws to Henderson and Meachem finished four-play drives. And Brees set up the final touchdown after a 41-yard hook-up with Meachem.
Meachem scored on his 56-yarder when backup cornerback Alphonso Smith let him streak by along the left sideline, apparently feeling there was coverage help coming from behind. Brees pumped once, then threw to his wide-open target, who virtually walked into the end zone.
On the 41-yard completion, Meachem beat another backup, Aaron Berry, on a pump-and-go along the right sideline.
The throws also said much about how the game's momentum had swung since Detroit gutted out a 14-10 halftime lead before struggling to hang on with an injury-thinned secondary. In the first half, Brees' longest completion was 23 yards. In the second half, he had four completions of at least 40 yards while Lions starting cornerback Chris Houston rotated in and out with a shoulder injury.
"That comes with coaching," said Meachem, who finished with 111 yards on four catches. "They saw something, the guys upstairs in the booth, and it worked to our advantage. We knew they had a few corners banged up, and the corners were coming in and out of the game. So when certain people came in, we figured, 'Let's see if he's stiff or is he fresh?' "
The answers came with the production and the approach.
"The mindset was to stop being so uptight," Meachem said of the second half. "I think we made the game bigger than it was."
He was referring to the first half. Detroit, in the franchise's first playoff game in 12 years behind its own high-powered offense, came out roaring.
The Lions opened the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive and forced two fumbles.
They seemed game to try to match the Saints production. In fact, the two teams set a playoff record with 839 net passing yards and tied another mark by combining for 1,038 yards. Calvin Johnson, the Lions' all-pro receiver, set a record for most receiving yards by a player in his playoff debut, with 211 on 12 catches.
Yet in the end, the Saints simply had too much firepower.

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