Detroit – The New Orleans Saints did nearly everything necessary to win an NFL game Sunday against Detroit at Ford Field. But the couple of items they left off the check list cost them against the Lions.
Holding a 23-10 lead with 5:24 left, the Saints watched as Detroit stunningly scored two touchdowns in a 110-second span, giving the Lions a 24-23 victory that dropped New Orleans' record to 2-4.
Golden Tate's 73-yard touchdown reception from Matthew Stafford with 3:38 left pulled Detroit to within 23-17, and Stafford's 5-yard scoring pass to Corey Fuller with 1:48 remaining – following Glover Quin's interception and 23-yard return of a Drew Brees pass – were enough to allow Detroit (5-2) to conjure an improbable comeback.
"It goes without saying that it was a tough loss," Coach Sean Payton said. "I thought the guys played with energy and yet, in the end, it ended up not being enough. Down the stretch we had opportunities to win the game. It's frustrating that we weren't able to do it.
"There are a handful of things in that fourth quarter … you've got to be able to recognize that momentum shift and come up with just a play. We weren't able to do it. I thought the penalties ended up hurting us. I wasn't happy with how that game was officiated; I'm going to leave it at that. And yet, that wasn't the reason in the end."
In the end, it was the inability to get a crucial stop, and to paste together a few first downs, and to hold on to the football that contributed to the Saints losing their fourth road game in as many tries this season. Next week, New Orleans plays Green Bay in a Sunday night game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"It's a tough loss," said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the Saints with 15 tackles. "We had the game in grasp. I felt like for the most part of the game, we dominated. To give up those cheap scores at the end … there's still some good that happened today. We've got to focus on that and get ready for Sunday Night Football.
"(But) we needed this win. We had it in our grasp and it slipped away. In this league, you can't let these wins like this slip away. We've just got to get refocused and get ready for Green Bay."
The good that Lofton referenced was a Saints offense that executed well against Detroit's top-ranked defense, and a Saints defense that forced two turnovers, produced three sacks and flustered the Lions for much of the afternoon.
The Saints gained 408 yards against the Lions, who only were allowing 271 per game before Sunday, and Brees (28 for 45 for 342 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception) led a passing game that, at times, was especially proficient.
Defensively, the Saints forced five punts while logging their first multi-interception game of the season, registering half as many sacks as they entered the game with (six) and limiting the Lions to just 101 yards in the first half.
But the final 5:24, with the Saints holding a 23-10 lead, didn't reach the conclusion New Orleans seemingly had scripted.
After Shayne Graham's third field goal, a 36-yarder, gave the Saints their 13-point lead, the Lions began their drive on their 10-yard line following a penalty on the kickoff. Five plays and a Detroit penalty later, the Lions were faced with third-and-14 from their 27.
Stafford, under pressure, flushed left and lofted a pass back to his right that barely eluded the fingertips of Saints cornerback Corey White. Tate caught the pass, juked a defender and raced down the right sideline for the score with 3:38 left.
"Of course, you're stunned," White said. "It's like, a play you could have made and then you look up, and he's going the whole distance. I'm like, 'Man, if only I'd made that play it would've been over.' But we'll be all right. We're going to get those plays in our direction sooner than later."
Said safety Kenny Vaccaro: "I've got to get the guy on the ground. I'm coming from the deep middle. We had the pick, we undercut him. The guy made a good move and then it was just, down the sideline.
"It's the league, though. Anything can happen at any time. You're feeling good about yourself, sitting there 23-10. Blink. Now I'm back here (in the locker room) talking about what happened."
The Saints regained possession after the kickoff and began the drive at their own 20 with 3:38 left. An incompletion, 3-yard run by Mark Ingram, 5-yard penalty on the Lions, 1-yard run by Ingram and another incompletion left the Saints at third-and-9 from their 29-yard line.
From there, Brees' pass in the short middle intended for Marques Colston (six catches, 111 yards) was intercepted by Quin and returned to the Saints' 14.
"They played basically a man coverage and dropped a safety down in there – we call it a 'Robber' or a 'Thief' – where he just kind of reads my eyes," Brees said. "When I stepped up (in the pocket) my eyes kind of got on Marques and I felt like that safety was to the left. I hung on Marques for an extra count.
"What's so hard is, the worst feeling in professional sports is when you feel like you let your team down. That's the way I feel, with that interception."
The Lions needed 1:22 to navigate those 14 yards, aided by a pass interference penalty on Rafael Bush on fourth-and-5 from the 9-yard line with 2:17 left. On the game-winner, Stafford found Fuller in the back of the end zone for the score.
On the final drive, with one timeout remaining, the Saints were able to drive 20 yards, from their 20 to the 40. But Brees' pass for Robert Meachem was incomplete on fourth-and-3 with 21 seconds remaining.
"In this league, you've got to finish," right guard Jahri Evans said. "We didn't finish. We did some things well but it came down to the end of the game and you've got to give credit to Detroit because they finished the game."
Detroit's finish soured what had been New Orleans' most complete game of the season, until the final 5:24.
"They're resilient," Payton said. "The tough thing about it is, the work, the preparation leading into the game is everything we wanted. We've just got to be able to finish, and that's just as much coaches as it is players.
"When you don't win in this league, it's tough. It's tough to come to work and get back up off the ground. It's certainly a lot easier after a win than after a loss. We don't want to be sitting here at 2-4 and yet, you have to do it. That's the nature of the game."
It should help, though, that the Saints remain just one game behind Carolina in the loss column in the NFC South Division standings.
"Should" being the operative word.
"I think the focus has to be more internally," Payton said. "If you start paying attention externally, you'll find yourself here again next week. We've got another good team next week."