After wrapping up the 2011 season on Sunday with a 45-17 win over the Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the New Orleans Saints (13-3) will host the upstart Detroit Lions in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs tonight.
Today's game will mark the first time that the Saints and Lions have met in the playoffs as the contest will also mark the end of an 11-season postseason drought for Detroit. The Saints lead the all-time series, 11-9-1, having won the last three meetings, including a 31-17 victory at the Superdome in primetime on December 4.
The Lions punched the ticket to their first postseason since the 1999 campaign with a 10-6 campaign, a mark that was last met in 1995. The roar to the Lions has been restored by wholesale changes on the coaching staff and roster since they finished 0-16 in 2008, led by the hiring of head coach Jim Schwartz and supplemented by the additions of talented players through the draft such as QB Matthew Stafford, TE Brandon Pettigrew and DT Ndamukong Suh, to supplement talented players that were already on the roster led by DE Cliff Avril and WR Calvin Johnson. In only his third NFL season, Stafford completed 421-of-663 passes for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions and a 97.2 passer rating. Johnson has evolved into one of the NFL's most explosive wideouts with 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2011. In the team's regular season-closing 45-41 loss to Green Bay, Stafford, the first pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, completed 36-of-59 passes for 520 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions to become only the fourth player in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a season, while Johnson was the recipient of 11 of these throws, putting up 244 yards in receiving with one of the scoring grabs
As we saw the previous time we faced them as well as throughout the season, their offense is a lot like ours in that they have the ability to make explosive plays in the passing game," said LB Jonathan Vilma. "Even though they lost their last game to Green Bay, they are playing extremely well."
The Saints enter the postseason after a record-setting 2011 season, where numerous team and individual franchise and NFL marks went by the wayside. With a 13-3 record, they tied the franchise record for regular season victories originally set in 2009. They were only one of three NFL teams to finish 8-0 at home, a feat which they accomplished for the first time. Winning their final eight regular season games, the Black and Gold finished tied with New England for the longest current win streak in the NFL.
New Orleans ended the regular season by shattering the NFL record for yards against in a season by 399 yards with 7,475. While well known for their explosive pass offense led by QB Drew Brees, outstanding balance in the run game contributed to the successes. Brees ended the regular season completing 468-of-657 passes (71.2%) for 5,476 yards with 46 touchdowns, 14 interceptions and a 110.6 passer rating. In addition to shattering the NFL single-season record for passing yards in week 16, a record that had stood for 27 years, Brees also set league marks for completions and completion percentage, while his scoring throw total also led the league and was the fourth-most in league record books.
While Brees was voted to his fifth Pro Bowl as a Saints, four of his teammates on the offensive unit also received the honor, showing there is no lack for firepower. Three of these selections were on the offensive line in T Jermon Bushrod, G Jahri Evans and G Carl Nicks. New Orleans experienced their most transition on the line since 2006 when Sean Payton became head coach, integrating two new full-time starters in C Brian de la Puente and T Zach Strief and surrendered only 24 sacks.
Several members of the skill unit also enjoyed standout campaigns. A powerful run game increased in the league rankings from 28th to sixth, led by the quartet of Mark Ingram, Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas as well as the blocking of FB Jed Collins. Sproles set an NFL single-season record with 2,696 all-purpose yards in his first season as a Saint. He led New Orleans in rushing with 87 carries for 603 yards with two touchdowns and also finished with 86 catches for 710 yards with seven scores. Thomas carried 110 times for 562 yards with five touchdowns, also adding 50 grabs for 425 yards with one score, while the group's youngsters, Ingram and Ivory, alternated in providing a physical inside running presence.
The passing game was headlined by the exploits of WR Marques Colston and TE Jimmy Graham, only the second duo in franchise history to have 1,000 yards receiving in the same campaign. Colston reached the mark for the fifth time in six seasons as he had 80 grabs for 1,143 yards with eight touchdowns. Playing in only his third season of football since high school, Graham finished with a franchise-record 99 receptions for 1,327 yards, while tying the club mark with 11 touchdowns. The yardage total was the second-highest in NFL record books for a tight end, as Graham was selected as a starter to the Pro Bowl.
A defensive unit fought injuries in the linebacker corps to surrender 20 points or less in each of their last five games, peaking at just the right time.
On the defensive line, DE Will Smith led the front attack with 6.5 tackles and two forced fumbles. Two newcomers to the interior rotation, Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers, along with Sedrick Ellis have contributed to a run-stopping effort that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since October 30.
Vilma, a defensive co-captain with Smith, despite missing five games with a knee injury, finished with 67 tackles, four passes defenses, one forced fumble and a team-leading three fumble recoveries. Jo-Lonn Dunbar in his first full season as a starter, opened 14 games on both the inside and outside and finished with 90 tackles, one sack, seven pass defenses and two forced fumbles. Scott Shanle continued to be a steady presence on the outside with 78 stops, one takedown, one interception, five pass defenses and one forced fumble.
On the back end of the defense, the cornerback trio of Jabari Greer, Tracy Porter and Patrick Robinson enjoyed effective seasons. Greer finished with a team-best 23 pass defenses, Porter continued with a tough, physical presence, while Robinson led the Saints with four picks. The safety position is manned by the physical duo of Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins. Harper led the Black and Gold with 115 tackles and 7.5 sacks, the second-highest number all-time of takedowns by an NFL defensive back, while Jenkins finished with 97 stops.
A New Orleans win tonight would advance the Saints to the NFC Divisional Playoff where they would face the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park next Saturday.