David J. Phillip, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — The Detroit Lions hardly looked like a playoff neophyte.
Matthew Stafford threw two touchdown passes, New Orleans was slowed by pair of uncharacteristic fumbles, and Detroit built a surprising 14-10 lead over the Saints at a raucous Superdome on Saturday night.
Stafford went to Will Heller for a 10-yard touchdown on Detroit's opening possession, then connected with Calvin Johnson on a 13-yard score, sending the Lions to the locker room with a lead in their first postseason appearance since 1999.
Record-setting Saints quarterback Drew Brees was 17 of 21 for 174 yards, and Darren Sproles tied the score 7-7 early in the second quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run. But New Orleans' high-powered offense, which lost an NFL-low five fumbles during the regular season, coughed it up twice in the opening half.
Marques Colston was stripped of the ball at the Detroit 13 on the Saints' first possession, and Brees later had the ball knocked away just before his right arm went forward trying to get off a pass. The Lions failed to move after either of the turnovers, but at least they avoided the full wrath of a Saints' offense that averaged 34.2 points a game.
Stafford was 14 of 22 for 180 yards by halftime, with Johnson hauling in five of those passes for 74 yards.
Detroit's dynamic duo quickly silenced the crowd with a 22-yard completion 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. Brees immediately went to Devery Henderson for a 23-yard pass, Sproles broke off a 14-yard run and the Saints were at the Lions 31. Brees hooked up with 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.
After a Lions punt, Pierre Thomas broke off a 31-yard run and Sproles took it around left end for the tying touchdown on third-and-1 at the Detroit 2.
Back came Detroit, reclaiming the lead with an 87-yard drive that started and ended with the familiar Stafford-to-Johnson combination. From his 13, Stafford connected with his favorite receiver for an 18-yard gain. After a 21-yard throw to Nate Burleson moved the Lions deep into New Orleans territory, Johnson slipped past Malcolm Jenkins and hauled in the scoring pass in the left corner of the end zone.
Brees had the ball slapped away by Willie Young just before his arm went forward, and Durant scooped it up at the Detroit 38 for his second recovery of the game. But the Saints caught a break — an inadvertent whistle halted the play, costing Durant a chance to take off with the ball and a clear path to the end zone.
New Orleans drove for John Kasay's 24-yard field goal on the final play of the half, after a 12-yard pass to Colston that was initially ruled a touchdown was overturned after a video review. The receiver tried to control the ball with his right hand after a leaping grab, but the replay showed it hit the turf.
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.
The LSU band got a big cheer when it played at halftime, two nights before the top-ranked Tigers and No. 2 Alabama face off in the BCS championship game on the same field.
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