Lions lead Saints 7-0 after 1st quarter

By Paul Newberry

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 7 2012 7:00 p.m. MST

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) looks for a receiver as New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) pursues during the first half of an NFL wild card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in New Orleans.

Dave Martin, Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — Matthew Stafford connected with Will Heller on a 10-yard touchdown and the Detroit Lions, making their first playoff appearance since 1999, jumped to a surprising 7-0 lead on the New Orleans Saints after the first quarter at a raucous Superdome on Saturday night.

Stafford quickly silenced the crowd with a 22-yard completion to Calvin Johnson on the second snap of the game. Then, on third-and-7 from the Saints 48, the quarterback made the first of four straight completions for double-digit yardage, connecting with Titus Young for 15 yards with the fans roaring again and the Saints blitzing. That was followed by an 11-yard completion to Young, a 12-yarder to Johnson and the scoring pass to the tight end, who sneaked off the line in the middle of the field and wasn't covered. Heller hauled in the pass at the 4 and got to the end zone before the defense could close in.

On the drive, Stafford completed all but one of his six throws for 70 yards.

New Orleans looked just as unstoppable on its opening possession. Record-setting quarterback Drew Brees immediately went to Devery Henderson for a 23-yard pass, Darren Sproles broke off a 14-yard run and the Saints were at the Lions 31. Brees hooked up with Marques Colston on a 13-yard pass, but the receiver was stripped of the ball by Stephen Tulloch. Justin Durant fell on it at the Detroit 18 to stifle the drive, just the sixth lost fumble of the season for the Saints.

But New Orleans was on the move again when the quarter ended, pushing to the Detroit 11.

The Saints went unbeaten at home during the regular season for the first time in their 45-year history and romped into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak, having matched their franchise-best regular-season record (13-3) from their 2009 Super Bowl campaign.

Brees passed for 5,476 yards and completed more than 71 percent of his throws as New Orleans set an NFL mark for total offensive yards with 7,474.

Detroit won 10 games and made the playoffs just three seasons after a historic 0-16 campaign. The Lions were led by Stafford, who became only the fourth quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 5,000 yards passing in a single season, and receiver Johnson, the league leader with 1,681 yards receiving. The towering receiver also led the NFC with 16 TD catches.

Just as the Saints were an inspiration to hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, the Lions have boosted morale in Michigan, a state synonymous with economic hardship.

The Lions, seeking their first playoff victory since 1991, were a 10-point underdog but gave New Orleans one of its tougher games this season, losing 31-17 on Dec. 4. The outcome might have been closer if not for a slew of penalties that cost the Lions more than 100 yards; they also played without ferocious defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston, all back for the playoffs.

During their winning streak, the Saints' defense consistently made enough timely stops to hold five opponents below 20 points and all of them to no more than 24, which is plenty good enough for an offense that averaged 34.2 points. An already stellar unit was boosted by Sproles, who set an NFL record for all-purpose yards with 2,696.

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