Fresh off a month of November where they posted a 3-0 record, the New Orleans Saints will continue their playoff push in the month of December when they host the Detroit Lions tonight at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints will look to continue their winning ways in the second half of the season and as they seek to remain in sole possession in first place in the NFC South. At 8-3, New Orleans is among a group of six clubs in the conference that have records between 9-2 and 7-4 and are jockeying for the postseason.
New Orleans brings the NFL's top-ranked offense into the regular season's final five games. During their recent stretch, the defensive unit has also made some big plays at opportune times, while the special teams play has successfully bottled up opposing return units, the specialist combination of K John Kasay and P Thomas Morstead have been a model of consistency.
Winning tonight's game is also important as the Saints will not return to the Superdome again until the day after Christmas as they had back onto the road for games in Tennessee (December 11, 12 p.m./FOX) and then Minnesota (December 18, 3 p.m./FOX). While the Saints have posted a 3-3 record on the road, they have excelled at home, where they have a 5-0 mark.
While chatter throughout the league often centers on the postseason and various scenarios in the weeks ahead, Saints head coach Sean Payton has always successfully been able to direct his troops to focus on the immediate task at hand, which tonight is a resurgent Lions squad. After finishing 0-16 in 2008, the Lions hired head coach Jim Schwartz and choosing QB Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft in 2009 and have continued to increase their seasonal win totals from two, to six, to holding a 7-4 mark in 2011 through the first 11 games.
"Detroit has done an outstanding job of continually building and improving their team over the last three years," said Payton. "They are now a team that is very explosive on offense with the ability to put pressure on the quarterback defensively. Coming off of a short week of preparation and practice following a Monday night game and the fact that they have been rested since playing on Thanksgiving, this will be a big test for us as a team."
At 7-4, while the Lions are four games behind the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North with five remaining, they are in strong contention for their first NFC Wild Card playoff spot since 1999. The Lions are smarting off of a 27-15 Thanksgiving day loss to the Pack at Ford Field.
The New Orleans offense has continued its excellence with QB Drew Brees leading an offense that has averaged 449.6 yards and 32.9 points per game. Brees has thrown for 3,689 Yards, the highest total in NFL history through the first 11 games of a season. The running game has been supported by the quartet of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, improving their ranking from 28th in the NFL in 2010 to eighth in 2011. Brees has shown the ability to use his entire perimeter group in getting the ball to them in the passing game. Both Sproles and Thomas rank in the top five on the club in receiving. TE Jimmy Graham is enjoying the most prolific season for a tight end in franchise history with a team-leading 67 receptions for 957 yards with eight touchdowns. The wideout group of Marques Colston, Devery Hendeson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore give the signal-caller a diverse number of options to spread the ball around to.
"The system really works the same every week," said Colston. "Drew gets in and he goes through his reads and he hits the open man. Some days it might be me. Other days it me be someone else. Drew does what he does and that's what makes him so great."
Sproles is a player whose offseason addition from the San Diego Chargers has played a crucial role in both the run game and passing game. He's already set career-highs in rushing with 59 carries for 402 yards and two touchdowns. He's also set a career-high in receiving with 62 catches for 476 yards with three touchdowns.
"Darren's been as productive for us as you could ask," said Brees. "Within the framework of what we do offensively, he can do everything. We ask him to do a lot and it's never too much for him. There's not a guy that I have more trust in with protection, with catching the football out of the backfield, giving the ball to him in critical running situations. Whatever it may be, the guy is a ball player and I'm glad he's on my team."
While the defensive unit has been overshadowed by the offense at times, they have made some big plays in their own right during this November stretch. Whether it's fourth down stops or a key interception, timely plays have happened on defense. Another key has been an improvement in forcing turnovers, as the club has recorded two interceptions and recovered one fumble in the last two contests, resulting in 17 points
Coming in week in and week out, we want to win the turnover battle," said CB Tracy Porter. "While we've been near the bottom (of the league) in interceptions on the season, you want to finish on the positive end each game. That's what we strive to do week in and week out."
The Saints lead Detroit 10-9-1 in the all-time series, under Payton defeating the Lions 45-7 in 2008 and 45-27 at the Superdome in the 2009 season opener. This will be the first time that the Saints have faced off against the Lions in prime time.